Berkeley’s Solar Boost

Berkeley has long been an environmental innovator, and the city is again taking the lead with a plan to loan residents the money they need to go solar. Homeowners will be able to tack the annual loan payments onto their property tax bill.

“This plan flips the conventional financing,” says Dan Kammen, who heads the University of California, Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and helped the city put the plan together. “Right now if you go to buy solar for your roof you have to pay up front. That’s like paying for 20 years of energy up front, and most people don’t want to do that. How many of us would have a cell phone if we had to buy 20 years of minutes up front?”

A solar system for a smaller 1,500-square-foot home runs about $20,000, an amount even the most dedicated greenie may be reluctant to borrow from a bank. Berkeley’s plan makes it easy and relatively cheap to go solar. Annual payments will be around $1,200 to $1,320 a year—about what residents pay for conventional electricity—and they’re added to a bill property owners have to pay anyway. City number-crunchers say everyone wins.

“We’ve looked at a range of scenarios, and even in the worst case a homeowner would break even after 20 years,” says Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates and the person behind the solar plan.

Berkeley will borrow the money needed to install the systems and plans to accommodate everyone who signs up when the program launches sometime this year. Merchants are also welcome to apply.

Solar may look increasingly appealing as energy costs rise. Fuel prices in Berkeley have jumped an average of six percent annually for the past three decades, DeVries says, adding that about half of Berkeley’s electricity comes from burning natural gas.

Interest in the loans is already running high, city leaders say. “The first question I get about the program is, “Where do I sign up?”” says DeVries.

The solar financing plan has generated hundreds of calls from cities across the country and as far away as Germany and Asia. It’s just one part of Berkeley’s larger Climate Action Plan (approved with 81 percent of the vote in 2006), which has the goal of reducing Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

If all goes as planned, city leaders say they hope to increase the number of solar systems from the current 400 to several thousand over the next decade. “Nearly every expert we have worked with on this financing initiative believes it can fundamentally change the market for solar,” says Bates.