Bay Nature magazineJanuary-March 2009

Climate Change

Berkeley FIRST

January 1, 2009

The high cost of installing solar panels is a major obstacle for Bay Area residents wanting to go solar to reduce their carbon footprint. Even though photovoltaic solar panels more than pay for themselves eventually through lower energy bills, many people can’t afford the up-front installation costs. That’s why the City of Berkeley started its FIRST (Financing Initiative for Renewable and Solar Technology) program, which provides loans for owners of residential and business property to install solar panels. In its current pilot stage, the program will fund solar panels for up to 40 Berkeley properties, covering costs up to $37,500 on each.

Anyone owning property within Berkeley was eligible to apply for the pilot program in November 2008. Approved applicants contract with any installer or contractor registered with the California Solar Initiative and are still eligible for rebates provided by the state for solar panel installation.

After installation, a special property tax is assessed on the home or business for a period of 20 years to repay the loan. A similar system has been used before to finance neighborhood projects like burying electrical wires; Berkeley will be the first in the state to use such a tax in a voluntary opt-in program for solar panel installation.

Other cities have expressed interest in using Berkeley FIRST as a model if the pilot program succeeds. Berkeley itself hopes to expand the program to include hundreds more homes. Also in the works is funding for solar water heaters and other energy efficiency technology.

FIRST was developed with funding from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the California Department of Energy. Private lenders will administer the loans, which are backed by the special property tax, allowing program participants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs, while helping the city meet its goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050. Find out more at

About the Author

Laura Hautala is a freelance reporter based in Oakland.