April 21, 2009

Solar in Santa Rosa/Solar Sonoma County: It’s a countywide affair

The City of Santa Rosa, one of 25 Solar America cities, is doing solar a little differently. Instead of trying to achieve its solar goals for the City of Santa Rosa, they’re going solar countywide. “What’s unique about Santa Rosa’s Solar America City goals,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin, “is that they’re not just…

The City of Santa Rosa, one of 25 Solar America cities, is doing solar a little differently. Instead of trying to achieve its solar goals for the City of Santa Rosa, they’re going solar countywide.

“What’s unique about Santa Rosa’s Solar America City goals,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin, “is that they’re not just the City of Santa Rosa; they’re goals for the entire County – its nine cities (Cloverdale, Cotati, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Sonoma, Santa Rosa and the Town of Windsor), and the County of Sonoma – 10 municipalities in all. All of the cities and the County joined Solar Sonoma County (SSC) a new county-wide solar nonprofit organization which also includes local businesses, solar vendors, and community members – a true public-private partnership.”

One of the organization’s projects is a solar implementation plan that will include ways to reduce financial, regulatory, and educational market barriers to solar PV and solar thermal systems in Sonoma County. In fact, Solar Sonoma County’s first target is to increase the amount of solar energy generating capacity in the County by 25 megawatts by March 2011 (25 MW is equal to putting solar on about 500 homes and 30 large businesses.)

What is it they say about strength in numbers?

“It’s definitely more of a challenge,” admits Mayor Gorin, who’s been on the job only four months. “It might be easier if we were just one city, but for us, everything we do-coordinating initiatives and processes– is multiplied by 10. That’s both the distinction of being unique, and the challenge of having a county-wide initiative,” she said calmly.

In early April, 2009, Santa Rosa Mayor Susan Gorin, Santa Rosa Utilities representative Tasha Wright, SSC Co-directors Marty Roberts and Lori Houston, and SSC board member and PG&E representative Martha Baeli joined about 160 of their Solar America City colleagues at the 2nd DOE Solar America Cities Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, to share stories and lessons learned about solarizing their communities.

“We’re quickly learning lessons in compromise. You just can’t do everything at once with this many players,” said co-director, Marty Roberts.

All SSC team members agree that the easy part of being a Solar America City was the motivation.

“Getting the public behind solar is relatively easy,” said Lori Houston, the other SSC co-director. “We took an existing, highly successful organization, Solar Sebastopol, and expanded it countywide. Navigating all the varied bureaucracies, coordinating all entities, keeping track of all these disparate pieces can sometimes be challenging and overwhelming.”

Managing solar goals for an entire county? A recovering bureaucrat, my eyes were spinning backward.

SSC’s vision of a solar implementation plan is aggressive: create innovative financial mechanisms to enable solar installations, and develop effective solar policies and regulations to break through traditional bureaucratic barriers–countywide.


Enter AB 811, recently enacted legislation enabling California cities to develop solar financing mechanisms, like low-interest loans for energy and water conservation paid back through the property tax billing system. It’s a race to see which city will offer the most novel model.

Berkeley, Palm Desert, Santa Monica, San Diego, and Sonoma County all have programs, each based on a different model using different funding sources, different eligible technologies, different levels of service. What sets Sonoma County’s program, Sonoma County Energy Independence Program (SCEIP), apart from other programs is that it’s for the entire county and was adopted by the County of Sonoma.

The SCEIP was approved by the County Board of Supervisors on March 24th, but according to Roberts, the County needs to get ‘opt-in’ contracts from each of the cities for them to participate. Roberts expects all of the cities will submit their contracts to the County by May.

They also needed resolutions of support before it was adopted; all cities adopted resolution in advance, according to Roberts.

“We know that SCEIP will help us meet our 25 MW solar goal,” said Roberts. “Only 20 more MW to go for our first three year target.”

How do you get nine different cities and a County government to agree on a standardized planning and permitting process, and adopt building codes and standards for PV and solar thermal systems? This sounds like a totally impossible task.

“We try to stay focused,” said Santa Rosa Utilities representative Tasha Wright.

“This was accomplished by a dedicated team of building officials from the various cities,” Roberts said. “We participated in their process and supported them all the way for about a year. Windsor’s building official, Steve Pantazes, a member of our steering committee, really took the lead and pushed it through. The building permit standardization is complete. It will be posted on our web site soon!”

They’ve already installed five megawatts since March 2008. “There was more than 18 MW of solar installed in Sonoma County before we set this target of 25 MORE MW by 2011,” said Roberts.

One of the more interactive projects of Solar Sonoma County is the online countywide solar mapping site, designed to help property owners assess solar feasibility of their property, and identify potential energy savings and carbon footprint reductions from installing solar. Currently, the pilot site is going through focus group testing, and will soon incorporate information about the County’s AB 811 program, including an online application.

A dynamic public relations campaign is a large part of Solar Sonoma County’s goal set. That includes the solar mapping and SSC websites, a countywide solar fair in June, educational outreach programs and workshops for the industry, building inspectors and the community.

A project of this scale takes unceasing attention to detail, tireless commitment from the part-time staff, and a compelling message that continues to inspire and motivate the community.

“I have a community that’s frequently out in front of the council, and it’s my job to push council as far and as fast as it can move,” declares Gorin.

That dovetails nicely with SSC’s calling. “We’ve become a magnet for all things solar in the community,” Roberts asserts.

Special thanks to Santa Rosa Mayor, Susan Gorin, SSC co-directors, Marty Roberts and Lori Houston, Santa Rosa Utilities representative Tasha Wright, SSC board member and PG&E representative, Martha Baeli, for their contributions to this article.