America’s FIRST Solar City
There are moments when history is made. When necessity, inspiration, creativity and determination come together to change the world as we know it. When individual and collective willpower embrace. Women suffragettes finally won the right to vote in 1920. Ghandi fought nonviolently for freedom, and won it, in India. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955. In 2007, Berkeley, California became an instant leader in the renewable energy movement with the approval of a revolutionary clean energy financing program.
Berkeley has a long history as a cradle of social activism, and while its game-changing solar play is relatively new, its effect is already being felt around California, the United States and the world. The story of Berkeley’s Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology (FIRST) begins in the mayor’s office. There, a staffer named Cisco DeVries had an idea. You might say an LED light bulb went on in his head. The city had already laid a foundation on which neighborhoods could come together to vote self-imposed taxes to pay for utility and telephone wires to be run underground. DeVries took that idea and ran with it, only with clean energy in mind.
Before long, a pilot program was in the works. This program allowed homeowners to avoid the high up-front costs of home solar power by borrowing cash from the city of Berkeley, and repaying it with interest through a voluntary property tax increase over 20 years. In this way, homeowners avoided immediate costs while the city gained revenue to pay for the financing and program administration. Moreover, the loan is tied to the property, not the individual, so the home can be sold without worrying about losing the value of the system before payback in energy savings is reached.
To say that Berkeley FIRST hasn’t changed the face and mood of the clean energy movement would be a gross miscalculation. A slew of other cities, including nearby Oakland, have adopted their own version of the program and the federal government is working on Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs directly spun from FIRST and designed to guide cities across the country through the process of adopting a Berkeley-esque financing scheme.
Applications for Berkeley’s pilot program were “sold out” in just nine minutes — easily as fast as any Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam concert. Following the successes of, and lessons learned from, the Berkeley FIRST pilot, city officials are now working with the state and Alameda County to expand the program statewide (California FIRST), and expand it to include energy efficiency improvements much like the federal PACE programs.
Berkeley residents interested in solar power should make a point to stop by the interactive solar map the city set up. It contains a map of all 626 solar systems (including solar thermal) and 2.9 megawatts of solar power installed within city limits so far. You can also enter an address to find out the solar potential of your home, cost of a solar system on that home and energy savings you can expect as a result. Plug these numbers into Berkeley’s online calculator to learn how to finance the system, how much cash you’ll save and how long it will take for the system to pay for itself through those savings.
Climate Action Plan
Berkeley’s dynamic move toward energy independence is not limited to just one solar pilot program, however epic that program might be. Residents of Berkeley have never been keen on complacency, and the environmental ambitions of the city are arguably unrivaled among other large cities.
In November 2006, a whopping 81 percent of Berkeley voters said yes to a goal of reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In June 2009 Council adopted a Climate Action Plan, adopting the 2050 goal and an 2020 interim goal of a 33% reduction. Those goals will be achieved not only through solar and renewable energy, but also waste reduction, building initiatives and transportation, among other specific steps. Not to mention the collective will of residents to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Anyone who wants to know exactly how Berkeley plans to meet those goals or what’s already been done will be happy with the incredible amount of disclosure and community outreach being exercised by city departments and the citizenry. You can find just about everything you’ll want to know, especially if you live in Berkeley, through an interactive website that guides visitors through the city’s seven-tiered plan to make Berkeley as green as green can be… and then greener some more.