Will Berkeley’s Solar Plan Go Viral?

Cisco DeVries, who came up with the innovative financing plan, is trying to convince cities nationwide to join the solar revolution.

Cisco DeVries wanted to outfit his home with solar power, but he wasn’t sure the costly installation would pencil out. So the Oakland resident put together a spreadsheet, analyzing his last three years of PG&E bills. He soon realized it wasn’t going to work financially. “Screw this,” he thought to himself. But then he had an epiphany.

At the time, DeVries was the chief of staff to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. In 2006, Bates had helped spearhead the passage of Measure G, a city ordinance which set some of the most aggressive targets for reducing greenhouse gases in the nation. Bates made DeVries the point person in his office for coming up with innovative ways to meet Measure G’s goals. Then DeVries had an idea about solar power.

The city was working on an underground utility district for a neighborhood, and DeVries thought that the same concept could be applied to solar installations. Such utility districts are common throughout the state. They allow neighborhoods to form a taxing district and sell bonds that pay for putting the utilities underground. Then the neighborhood residents pay off the bonds by paying extra taxes on their annual property bills.

It was simple, and DeVries thought the same could be done with solar installations. The city could form a special taxing district and sell bonds. In turn, those bonds would allow homeowners to pay to retrofit their houses with solar power, and then they would pay for the installations as part of their property taxes. Currently, a complete solar installation for electricity and water heating runs between $23,000 to $33,000, depending on the size of one’s home. In November 2007, the Berkeley City Council made national headlines when it approved the concept, now known as Berkeley FIRST. Bates and the council got most of the credit, but it was DeVries, toiling the behind the scenes, who had the inspiration. “He was one of the best people I’ve ever had work for me in my thirty years of public service,” Bates said.

For family reasons, DeVries left Bates’ office earlier this year after serving five year’s as the mayor’s chief of staff. Today, he is the managing director of Renewable Funding LLC, a small Oakland company that is attempting to spread Berkeley’s innovative solar financing plan around the country. DeVries has already talked to more than forty cities nationwide, including his hometown, Oakland. His company also is bidding on a solar financing project in San Francisco.

But there are roadblocks. Cities are struggling financially and are overwhelmed with managing just their basic services. “What I’ve heard from cities over and over again is that ‘We don’t want to pay anything, and we don’t want to have to deal with anything,'” said DeVries, during a recent interview at a coffeehouse in Oakland’s Uptown district.

DeVries views the Berkeley solar financing plan, along with the one recently developed in Palm Desert, Calif., as being a bit like curbside recycling was twenty years ago. Berkeley was among the nation’s innovators back then, too. But slowly, city after city followed Berkeley’s lead and adopted curbside recycling to the point where it’s now widely regarded as a basic city service. “It changed the recycling world,” DeVries said. “Basically, any city worth it’s salt has to provide curbside recycling. … The solar financing program will soon turn that corner.”

That is, if Renewable Funding’s plan works out. The company is now working with Berkeley to get its solar program off the ground. The city turned to the Oakland company because of problems making the bond financing viable. Typically cities float multimillion-dollar bonds to pay for large capital projects. But in the solar financing plan, the city is basically trying to sell a series of micro bonds to finance individual homes — a tough sell even in a bullish financial market. So Renewable Funding has contracted with the city to buy these micro bonds, and then repackage them and sell them to larger institutional investors. Although employed by the company, DeVries said he is not participating on the project, and is keeping it at arm’s length in order to fend off any suggestion that he’s cashing in on his work in public office.

If Berkeley’s plan goes viral and spreads nationwide, it could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. According to a yet-to-be released paper from researches at UC Berkeley, a nationwide program could eliminate a gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions throughout the country. “This would conservatively contribute 4 percent of the savings needed for the US to reach 1990 emission levels by 2020, with very significant additional savings if the program expands to commercial buildings,” the report concludes.

Retrofitting homes with solar power, both for electricity and for heating water, would be the most cost efficient in the Sunbelt, where summertime air-conditioning use runs rampant. Unfortunately, even with Berkeley’s innovative financing program, homeowners in temperate climates like the East Bay won’t capture enough savings on their utility bills to make up for the initial installation costs of a full residential system — even if they are spread over twenty years on their property tax bills, the report concludes.

But that doesn’t mean people won’t do it. According to Bates, Berkeley residents filled up the forty slots of its test program in nine minutes when it was launched earlier this month. That should come as no surprise. After all, the explosion of the organics industry has proven that people are willing to pay a bit more to save the earth.

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