by Duncan Sill

There is definitely not a shortage of discussion about energy, the economy and climate change these days. Recurring challenges remain, equally on the global, national and local levels, with how we will find sustainable solutions to integrate this nexus and its inherent interconnections. To a large extent, economics play a pivotal role in both the systemic problem and solution. Many of us want to better address energy and climate change issues, and there are relevant initiatives on the local community level that support these efforts. However, resources, especially financial, remain very limited, and beyond energy efficiency measures, which have their range of cost benefits, the high front-end costs of renewable energy improvements and limited financing options often become an obstacle for many. A way towards a solution involves local public policy and program development that will deal with how financing may be made more accessible and affordable to support these improvements. The returns on investment from such initiatives can be comprehensive, and lead to economics that support energy and climate change rather than the other way around; often pitting environmental issues against economic agendas. The end result, we hope, is a collective collaborative approach rather than unhealthy competition to the common challenges we face economically and environmentally.

The 2009 NM Legislative Session passed two important bills to enhance opportunities for area residents and businesses, encouraging them to make renewable energy improvements. Senate Bill 647 (Renewable Energy Financing District Act) and House Bill 572 (Solar Energy Improvement Special Assessment Act), sponsored by Senator Peter Wirth and Representative Brian Egolf, respectively, provide leadership in response to development of renewable energy sources, and positively impact the security, economic well-being, and public and environmental health of the state; contributing to energy independence and addressing climate change issues. Theses issues are equally relevant to the local region here, and are in many ways, extremely important to developing the foundation for sustainability and to progress towards less dependence on imported resources.

The State bills authorize local governments to offer potential solutions to deal with financing renewable energy improvements. With the ability to impose and administer a special assessment on real properties, repaying the costs for installing renewable energy improvements may take a different format from conventional financing. This arrangement will make renewable energy improvements more viable. Equally important is the impact on local green economic activities and realistic potential for community members to participate in the shaping solutions toward climate change.

On October 27, 2009, the Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County took action by adopting an ordinance (2009-02, effective November 27, 2009) to form the Renewable Energy Financing District (REFD).  Currently, the County is working on an agreement with a contracted entity to assist with the program development, implementation, administrative and financing services of the REFD. It is hoped that program activities can be launched in approximately 60 days to include (but not limited to) public workshops and facilitation of the program implementation. Specifically, we will conduct outreach in support of the details related to the application processes to ensure that the general public receives relevant and accurate information to realize the maximum benefits of the program. The intent is to make the process user-friendly while maintaining a high level of accountability.

The initial stage of the program will likely be funded with private capital, and the REFD will issue “micro-bonds” to support each transaction. We hope to offer loan terms closely to match the life expectancy of the installment, and therefore will likely create situations, in general, where the monthly costs of the renewable energy improvement are compatible with existing utility costs. There is a possibility that funding such as qualified Energy Conservation Bonds—tax credit bonds—may be accessed from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a resource. Other sources of financing options that we will continue to explore and develop may include taxable bonds, private equity and tax-exempt bonds. The overall goal is to ensure that viable low cost financing becomes a reality, and continues to enhance the region’s renewable energy efforts.

The County has been meeting with various stakeholders including bankers, renewable energy installers, builders and others in order to get comments and feedback on the program development process. We will continue to work closely with the State and The New Mexico Association of Counties to ensure that Santa Fe County establishes a policy and program that serves our public in an effective, accessible and affordable manner. Currently, Boulder County and the City of Berkeley have similar policies and programs in place, and they are experiencing well-received participation.

If you are interested in learning more about this initiative, or if you would like to place your name on a list for potential eligible applicants, please refer to our website at santafecounty.org or contact Duncan Sill at dsill@santafecounty.org.

Duncan Sill is the Santa Fe County Economic Development Director and Affordable Housing Administrator.

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