It started with a man named Cisco DeVries. As chief of staff to the mayor of Berkeley, Calif., DeVries was looking for a way to enable more people to update their homes with renewable energy and save money on their utility bills. He came up with an idea: finance upgrades through the city and attach the debt to the property taxes of participating homeowners.
It was a win-win-win idea, enabling more homeowners to take advantage of tax credits for renewableenergy improvements, thus lowering their utility bills and reducing the community’s carbon footprint. The idea was so solid and so simple and so smart that even as Berkeley set about putting together a pilot program, news began to spread.
It was then — back in November 2007 — that several urgent e-mails arrived in County Commissioner Will Toor’s inbox.
“A bunch of people said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a great idea!’” Toor followed the links, read about DeVries’ idea and agreed. “From that day forward, it became my mission.”
Toor’s mission was a successful one. By the end of 2008, Boulder County voters had passed Ballot Issue 1A, authorizing the county to issue $40 million in bonds to loan money to homeowners for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy improvements to their homes, and the ClimateSmart Loan Program was born, placing Boulder County at the forefront of a new national movement.
But that’s when the real work began. Over the course of 2009, the county had to build the ClimateSmart Loan Program from the ground up, reaching out to homeowners and contractors, creating applications, websites and workshops, dealing with legal nuances and a skittish bond market. The result of that hard work was an undisputed financial boon to Boulder County’s economy, just when the county needed it most.
Though many people played a role in establishing the ClimateSmart Loan Program, there are four Boulder County residents without whom the program would not exist — Alice Madden, Will Toor, Ann Livingston and Susie Strife. For their vision and effort, Boulder Weekly names them Boulder County’s People of the Year for 2009.
Within a week of learning about Berkeley’s proposed pilot program, Toor took the idea to the other county commissioners — Ben Pearlman and Cindy Domenico. They both supported the idea, so a working group was formed to discuss how to turn the idea into reality. Almost immediately, they realized they would have to change state law before they could move forward.
In January 2008, they turned to State Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder. Madden says she became an enthusiastic supporter of the concept as soon as Toor had finished explaining it to her. Madden introduced House Bill 1350 late in the legislative session.
“When Will came to me, I talked to the governor about it,” Madden says. “[Gov. Ritter] was definitely supportive from the beginning. He has a real focus on equity, and this was an equity bill. If you’re going to put renewable energy on your house and you’re going to get rebates but you still have to come up with $50,000, that certainly limits who can do that. This way it really broadens who can think about making these investments.”
With the governor’s support, Madden carried the bill successfully through the House with little meaningful opposition.
“Some people are going to be against some things because it’s kind of like a sport to them; they really don’t care about the outcome,” she says. “But my recollection is that this was not a really heavy lift because it made sense. … It doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change. Lowering your utility bill is a good thing.”
In August 2008, Toor and other county officials referred the issue to voters as Ballot Issue 1A on that November’s ballot, asking permission to sell up to $40 million in bonds and to loan that money to homeowners for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy upgrades to their homes.
“We had an outpouring of community support when we put it on the ballot,” Toor says.
Young people handed out leaflets at farmers markets.
Local climate scientists threw their weight behind the concept. Homeowners expressed their eagerness to get started.
Voters approved the ballot issue by a significant margin with just over 63 percent voting in favor of it.
“While it is a Boulder County program, I believe the community as a whole should have a sense of ownership of the program,” Toor says.
Within a year of Toor’s reading about Berkeley’s pilot program, Boulder County had surpassed Berkeley, becoming the first government to enact a property assessed clean energy (PACE) program on such a broad scale.
By approving Ballot Issue 1A, voters left county officials with a problem that can be summarized in two words: Now what? County staff had voter permission to sell bonds and loan the money to homeowners. What they didn’t have was an operational program — or a clear and proven blueprint for creating one.
What followed were long days and late nights as county staff worked to create a program that could live up to the original vision — a task county staff found both daunting and inspiring.
Toor says the groundbreaking nature of the ClimateSmart Loan Program had some county staffers looking back to the days when Boulder became the first city in the country to tax itself to protect and preserve open space, creating a model program that many local governments have since followed.
“People thought this was such a good idea that if we could demonstrate that this works, it would be good not only for our people, but for people across the country,” Toor says.
For Ann Livingston, the county’s sustainability coordinator, and Susie Strife, sustainability outreach and education coordinator, walking on terra incognita was part of the excitement. Both enjoyed knowing that they were pioneering something unique and cutting-edge, even if that meant months of collaborative meetings and lots of 80-hour workweeks.
“The staff was willing to put the rubber to the road and burn the midnight oil,” Livingston says.
Livingston and Strife say people joked with them, asking them whether they were sleeping in the office because they stayed so late and came in so early.
At the time, Strife was still in graduate school and was serving an internship with the county. She arrived her first day on the job to find that she´d already received more than 70 e-mails from people eager to learn about the new program.
“It was the perfect start to my first real job,” she says. The county had to develop the infrastructure for the program, as well as create policies, such as deciding how loan money could be spent, how to manage the application process and how to work with contractors. In the end, it was decided that the loans could be used to finance about 40 different types of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy improvements. Homeowners and contractors alike were required to attend workshops.
By spring, with the rudiments in place, the county launched the first wave of loans, with about 1,700 people attending the necessary workshops.
But despite intense planning and troubleshooting, getting the program off the ground came with its share of what Toor calls “hiccups.”
“The first round was very challenging,” Livingston says. “No one had run a program like this before.”
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.
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.
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
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
people who had at first approached the county seeking financing through
ClimateSmart found that other kinds of financing were better for them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
amount of money pumped into the county’s economy by the ClimateSmart
Loan Program dwarfs the $2 million the county received in federal
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”