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Thursday, December 24,2009

2009 Boulder County People of the Year: Team ClimateSmart

We honor Alice Madden, Will Toor, Ann Livingston and Susie Strife

By Pamela White

People who participated in the first round of loans told Boulder Weekly that the process wasn’t seamless.

Darren and Dana Kelly of Louisville said that they found themselves waiting for the county to iron out details of the program and that they experienced significant delays in getting their insulation and solar panels installed as a result. But they noted that the county kept them up-to-date with regular e-mails so that they always knew what was going on.

The biggest kink, as it turns out, wasn’t the operation of the program itself, but rather convincing the bond market that the program wasn’t an unreasonable investment risk.

“We had the perfect timing of launching this when the municipal bond market was paralyzed from economic meltdown,” Toor jokes. “When we first went out to the bond market, the bondrating agencies were being extremely conservative.”

They looked at the county’s new program and saw something that had never been done before and which was therefore suspect. Despite the fact that loans were tied to the property and would be repaid through property taxes, for which the county has a 99.9 percent payment rate, they gave the county a very low bond rating. In order to make the loans marketable, the county was forced to require a year of payments in reserve.

Some people who had at first approached the county seeking financing through ClimateSmart found that other kinds of financing were better for them.

But during the program’s first six months of operation it funded 612 energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects across Boulder County, totaling $9.8 million in loans.

And just as county staff had hoped, the program has drawn the attention of people from across the country and around the world.

The biggest goal of the ClimateSmart Loan Program is to reduce the county’s carbon footprint. If measured against that standard, the program has taken only baby steps toward success. The 612 projects funded by the program are a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to turn the county into an environmentally sustainable community.

But there are other ways in which the program has already proved itself to be very effective. At the top of the list is its economic benefit to the community.

As it turns out, the county did, indeed, have “perfect timing” in launching the program, which acted as a sort of super-stimulus package. Together with $9.8 million in loan money that went into the pockets of solar companies, construction workers and other eco-contractors, there were $2 million in rebates that went back to homeowners. That’s more than $10 million that wouldn’t have been circulating in Boulder County otherwise. Then there’s the money that participating homeowners are not paying in utility bills this winter — money they can use for other expenses. There’s also the fact that 75 percent of the bonds were sold locally, meaning that the bulk of the income generated by interest on the loans will also stay in the county.

Toor says he would like to see a study done of the economic impact the program had on Boulder County. It’s impossible to know what would have happened to the county’s economy without it, of course, but Boulder County does seem to have gotten through the recession relatively unscathed.

“One thing we’ve heard from the solar companies is that they were hiring this year instead of laying people off,” Toor says. “Compared to solar companies elsewhere in the state, they’re doing well.”

The amount of money pumped into the county’s economy by the ClimateSmart Loan Program dwarfs the $2 million the county received in federal stimulus funds.

The program was obviously a shot in the arm to the renewable-energy industry in Boulder County, but it also placed the county in the vanguard when it comes to finding innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

“[ClimateSmart] is the first program to go out to the bond market,” Livingston says. “It’s the first program to comprehensively address both energyefficiency and renewable-energy measures. It’s the first program that’s multijurisdictional in nature.”

She and Strife get phone calls daily from around the world. Livingston has participated in a number of “webinars” designed to help other local governments learn from Boulder County’s experience. And this year, as Boulder County’s voters rejected an extension and expansion of ClimateSmart, voters in Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties approved their own versions of the program.

The county also finds itself in the spotlight where federal policy is concerned. The Department of Energy has identified PACE programs as a key strategy for moving forward on renewable energy. Vice President Joe Biden expressed interest at an October meeting of his Middle Class Task Force in making PACE-type financing available nationwide through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“So the idea has made it to the White House,” Toor says.

As for the rejection of ClimateSmart in the 2009 municipal election, Toor blames that on several factors, including the lack of a campaign on behalf of the measure, confusing ballot language and the county’s inclusion of multi-county bonding authority in with basic ClimateSmart funding.

Toor says there is enough bonding authority left for the loan program to remain intact until the next election, when voters will see the issue raised again — this time accompanied by a campaign.

“It will be back,” Toor says. When it comes to being named people of the year, Madden, Toor, Livingston and Strife are quick to praise others.

“I really have to credit Will Toor,” Madden says. “It was his vision.”

Toor lauds Livingston and Strife, who, in turn, praise an “incredible” county staff.

“I’m totally thrilled to have such forward-thinking leaders and mentors,” says Strife, whose internship turned into a full-time job working as the loan program’s de facto manager.

But it’s clear they all feel a sense of pride about the program’s success.

Says Madden: “This is a national movement now.”

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