Miami Herald: Gov. Charlie Crist weighs bill to help cities go green

May 18, 2010

The Miami Herald published the following on May 18, 2010:


Going green could extend to consumers’ wallets if Cutler Bay Mayor Paul Vrooman’s plan passes muster with the governor.

The program Vrooman has championed, Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), enables property owners to borrow money to buy solar panels, wind generators, insulation or shutters for their homes with little upfront expense.

The program would establish a municipal “green corridor,” consisting of Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables. The five cities would lend money for a homeowner to install a proven energy-saving device — say, $30,000 in solar panels or $3,000 for solar plumbing.

In return, the cities would place a lien on the home until the loan was paid off by the homeowner, who would be assessed a monthly fee for the loan’s duration.

“It’s a fee that is not based on the property value but based on a set amount of what it cost to do the installation,” Vrooman said.

The investment could be recouped by lower electrical bills. Each home would undergo an energy audit and cost-benefit analysis before opting into the voluntary program.

Last month, the House and Senate passed Senate bill HB 7179, designed to help communities band together to assist residents in joining PACE.

On Monday, Gov. Charlie Crist received the bill and is reviewing it. He has until June 1 to take action on it, said his spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Sponsors anticipate its passage, especially in the wake of Crist’s call last week to convene a special legislative session later this month. At the session, legislators will consider oil drilling bans and renewable energy legislation.

“If it’s dealing with solar panels and opportunities for businesses and Floridians to move in that direction, he has been supportive of solar energy and rebates in the past,” Ivey said.

“It’s a no-mandate, no taxpayer subsidy that allows people to finance energy efficiency and other clean technologies, like solar, and save energy costs,” said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader who cosponsored the bill with Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton.

“This is one of the most innovative public policy initiatives we’ve addressed in Florida for years for renewable energy. Local governments see this as a way for them to help residents and create jobs.”

The impetus began last year after Vrooman researched the PACE program in Berkeley, Calif. To date, 16 states operate PACE.

Vrooman lobbied Tallahassee and Cutler Bay’s sister cities. Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay, Coral Gables and South Miami all passed resolutions earlier this year to lend support for Vrooman’s initiative, as did Cutler Bay.

In the PACE program, the city would pay for the installation of the energy-saving measure. Homeowners also could apply for federal incentives to knock the costs down.

The benefit would stay with the house should an owner decide to sell sooner.

If the bill becomes law, a homeowner seeking to enroll in PACE would agree to a cost-benefit analysis of his or her home, taking into account kilowatt usage, house design, location, trees and other factors.

Such factors would play into the cost-benefit and the payback. Solar panels, for example, can cost about $35,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath house, Vrooman said.

A 2009 Council on Environmental Quality report stated that the 130 million homes in the United States generate more than 20 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Energy efficiency retrofitting can reduce energy use by up to 40 percent per home, and cut home energy bills by $21 billion annually, according to the report.

Some homes may not need the pricey panels, but can qualify through other measures, such as insulation, shutters, energy-efficient windows or solar plumbing.

The payback rate for a $3,000 solar plumbing unit could be three to five years, with savings of about $40 per month for a four-person household, said Alan Towsley, owner of Sunworks in Miami, a solar energy installation firm.

“It really is such an individualized project. The system size and cost is tailored to the specific homeowner and consumption and can vary dramatically,” said Tom Staples, president of Cooler Planet, a Washington-based firm that consults homes and businesses in connecting to solar power.

One local example lends support to the plan.

Dr. Oscar Hevia, a Dadeland-area dermatologist, turned his one-story, three-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot Coral Gables house into the first solar-powered home in the city last summer. A series of 20 photovoltaic cells on his rooftop convert sunlight into electric energy.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Hevia said. “The real charm, the part I like about it so much, is that every month it’s the gift that keeps giving.”

Hevia declined to say how much he spent and says he is awaiting federal rebates to help offset his out-of-pocket cost. He says he has cut his electric bill from $500 to $250 in the peak summer months and to about $90 in the winter.

Vrooman says it could take until the end of the year for the program to be implemented if Crist signs the bill.

“We’re going into new territory in the state of Florida.”