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In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote that California Attorney General Jerry Brown has filed a lawsuit against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over the mortgage giants’ quashing of the PACE solar loan program:

The California attorney general’s office on Wednesday sued Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over actions by the mortgage finance companies that have derailed a popular financing program that allows homeowners to pay for energy efficiency improvements through a surcharge on their property taxes.

This month, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie and Freddie, issued guidelines to lenders that restricted the ability of homeowners to participate in the financing programs, called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE. Twenty-two states have authorized the programs, which have drawn $150 million in stimulus funding support from the Obama administration.

When a city or state pays for energy efficiency upgrades through the program, a lien is placed on the home. The liens, like other property tax assessments, take priority over the mortgage if the homeowner defaults. The housing agency instructed lenders that they could not accept such PACE liens.

In recent months, some banks have declined to refinance mortgages for homes that carry the liens.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Oakland, Calif., Jerry Brown, the California attorney general and Democratic candidate for governor, asked that the court declare that participation in PACE programs does not violate the standards of Fannie and Freddie, which are government chartered. The suit also asks that an injunction be issued to prevent them from taking action against homeowners whose properties have PACE liens.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency was also named as a defendant.

The suit alleges that the housing agency’s actions violated California law, which authorizes PACE programs, and are “severely hampering California’s efforts to assist thousands of California homeowners to reduce their energy and water use, help drive the state’s green economy, and create significant numbers of skilled, stable and well-paying jobs.”

“The actions of these government-sponsored, shareholder-owned private corporations have placed California’s PACE programs – and the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money supporting them – at immediate risk while benefiting their own pecuniary interests,” the suit states.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about the return of J.R. Ewing, the oil tycoon villain of the “Dallas” television show. Except this time, he’s pushing solar energy:

J.R. Ewing returns to the small screen on Tuesday, and the boys down at the Cattleman’s Club just might need a double bourbon when they hear what he has to say.

Larry Hagman, the actor who played the scheming Texas oilman on the long-running television show “Dallas,” is reprising his role as J.R. in an advertising campaign to promote solar energy and SolarWorld, a German photovoltaic module maker.

“In the past it was always about the oil,” Mr. Hagman says in a TV commercial that is being unveiled Tuesday at the Intersolar conference in San Francisco.

“The oil was flowing and so was the money. Too dirty, I quit it years ago,” he growls as he saunters past a portrait of a grinning J.R. in younger days and a wide-screen television showing images of an offshore oil rig and blackened waters.

Doffing a 10-gallon hat, he heads outside into the sunshine and gazes at a solar array on the roof of the house. “But I’m still in the energy business. There’s always a better alternative.”

“Shine, baby shine,” he says with his trademark J.R. cackle.

In real life, Mr. Hagman, 78, lives on an estate in the Southern California town of Ojai where he installed a massive 94-kilowatt solar system, thought to be the world’s largest residential array, several years ago.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: PG&E

I wrote this post for Grist, where it first appeared.

Amid the hullabaloo over government-chartered mortgage giants derailing the green financing program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, the march toward distributed generation of renewable energy – that is, generating electricity from decentralized sources such as rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbinescontinues.

Case in point: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced Wednesday that it had awarded contracts to San Francisco’s Recurrent Energy to install 60 megawatts’ worth of solar panels in the region surrounding California’s state capital.

Rather than construct a central solar power station, Recurrent will scatter a dozen five-megawatt installations around two cities in Sacramento County. Each installation will be located near an existing substation, which means that the solar arrays can be plugged directly into the grid without requiring any expensive transmission upgrades.

As I wrote earlier this year in Grist, when SMUD put 100 megawatts of renewable energy contracts out for bid, the allocation sold out within a week. The utility is paying the solar developers a standard premium for their photovoltaic energy — called a feed-in-tariff. But according to calculations done by Vote Solar, a San Francisco non-profit that promotes solar energy, SMUD will pay no more for this clean green solar electricity than it does for fossil-generated power at peak demand times. A 40-percent plunge in solar module costs over the past year has made solar photovoltaic energy increasingly competitive with natural gas, the main fossil fuel used in California to generate electricity.

California’s two big investor-owned utilities, PG&E and Southern California Edison, have launched similar distributed generation programs, which will bring 1,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations online over the next five years. At peak oputput, that’s the equivalent of a nuclear power plant.

Two weeks ago, PG&E cut the ribbon on the first project to come online as part of its 500-megawatt distributed generation initiative. The two-megawatt Vaca-Dixon Solar Station is built near a utility substation 50 miles north of San Francisco.

It took just nine months to install the fields of solar panels for the Vaca-Dixon station — that’s light speed in a state where the first new big solar thermal power plant in 20 years, BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project, has been undergoing licensing for nearly three years.

Solar thermal power plants generate electricity by using mirrors to focus the sun on a liquid-filled boiler. The process creates create steam that drives a conventional turbine which can generate hundreds of megawatts of electricity. Solar thermal projects, by nature, are large centralized facilities, the clean and green versions of a big fossil-fuel power plant.

Photovoltaic farms, on the other hand, generate electricity when sunshine strikes semiconducting materials in a solar cell. If you want to produce more power, you just keep adding solar panels.

While BrightSource hopes to secure a license for its solar thermal project soon, the developer of a hybrid biomass solar trough power plant to be built in California’s Central Valley pulled the plug on the project last month, after spending 18 months and untold millions of dollars in the licensing process before the California Energy Commission.

PG&E has been depending on both those solar thermal projects to supply electricity to help it meet its renewable energy mandates. No wonder then, the utility’s growing enthusiasm for solar panel power. Photovoltaic farms do not have to be approved by California Energy Commission and can be built on already degraded land or close to cities.

And as I reported last month, the developer of another project being built to generate electricity for PG&E, the Alpine SunTower, decided to drop solar thermal technology made by its partner, eSolar, in favor of photovoltaic panels. The official explanation for the switch was that project was being downsized due to transmission constraints and solar panels proved a better fit.

But one has to wonder if economics as much as energy was behind the change. If so, deals like the one SMUD struck could be a recurrent theme.

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photo: Sungevity

I wrote this post for Grist, where it first appeared.

On Tuesday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency effectively shut down an innovative green financing program called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, by restricting the ability of homeowners to take out loans to install solar panels and make other energy efficiency improvements.

Now the United States Treasury Department has piled on. A new Treasury directive tells the nation’s banks how to enforce the FHFA rules. The move could pose new problems for homeowners who have PACE loans, and complicate efforts to get the program back on track.

Homeowners repay PACE loans through an annual assessment on their property taxes. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department told banks that if a homeowner has a home equity line of credit, the amount of money available should be lowered to account for the loan liability. The Treasury also said homeowners could be required to put their PACE payments in an escrow account.

After Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government chartered mortgage finance giants, raised concerns about PACE in May, some lenders declined to refinance mortgages that carried PACE liens.

Owners of commercial properties who hold PACE loans may need to put up additional collateral to back up the loan, according to the Treasury Department letter.

Cisco DeVries, president of Renewable Funding, an Oakland, Calif., company that designs and administers PACE programs for local governments, said he wants to make sure PACE loans for commercial owners won’t be curtailed.

“We believe PACE commercial can go ahead as it has always required lender consent when a commercial mortgage is in place,” he wrote in an email. “We just want to make sure we don’t run into an unexpected problem as we move forward.”

Some municipalities sell bonds to finance energy-efficiency loans for homeowners. But they may find that harder to do under the Treasury Department directive, which warned banks to move cautiously when underwriting such bonds.

I reported in the The New York Times on Tuesday that the Federal Housing Finance Agency had rejected the Obama administration’s offer of a two-year guarantee against any PACE-related mortgage losses Fannie or Freddie might suffer.

Now in a move that PACE proponents say adds insult to injury, the Treasury Department is advising banks to get local governments to insure them against any losses from the program if homeowners default on their mortgages.

Among those not amused by the FHFA action was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The FHFA’s bureaucratic breakdown threatens one of California’s most promising new engines of job creation in this struggling economy,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “FHFA’s action threatens thousands of new sustainable jobs in California, especially in the hard-hit construction industry, while denying homeowners the opportunity to reduce monthly energy costs and add equity to their homes.”

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In Sunday’s New York Times, I have an update on the controversy surrounding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s blocking of the PACE solar loan program:

Two government-chartered mortgage finance companies are unlikely to accept loans on homes that are part of a special program that lets homeowners repay the cost of energy improvements through a surcharge on their property tax bills, according to Energy Department officials.

The Obama administration has allocated $150 million in stimulus money to support the financing technique, called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, and 22 states have authorized such programs. In a separate stimulus effort, President Obama on Saturday announced nearly $2 billion in loan guarantees for solar energy production.

Through the PACE program, loans to install solar panels and make other energy improvements would be repaid through 20-year special assessments on property tax bills and secured through a lien.

On May 5, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy and resell most home mortgages, notified lenders that such liens could not take priority over a mortgage but did not offer guidance on how to handle such loans. The uncertainty has frozen many PACE programs and led some energy companies to furlough workers.

On Friday, Cathy Zoi, an assistant secretary at the Energy Department, called officials in Boulder County, Colo., to inform them that the administration had been unable to persuade the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to accept mortgages with PACE liens.

The liens, like other property tax assessments, would be paid first if a homeowner defaults.

“She said in light of the circumstances we should look at other ways of financing energy efficiency with the stimulus money,” said Ben Pearlman, a commissioner in Boulder County.

“We’re very concerned,” Mr. Pearlman said. “It’s a powerful program and a powerful idea. We need to find an easy way for people to make those investments.”

Those homeowners who already carry energy liens on their property may find it difficult to refinance their mortgages. In Sonoma County, Calif., some lenders have declined to issue new loans for homes with such liens unless the assessment is paid off.

Ms. Zoi also called Cisco DeVries, president of Renewable Funding, a company in Oakland, Calif., that devises and administers PACE programs for local governments. “She indicated that the agencies had decided not to accept the liens and the administration needed to begin contingency planning on what to do with stimulus funding allocated for PACE,” Mr. DeVries said.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director for public affairs, confirmed the calls. “We expect to get more written guidance from the regulators this week,” he said on Saturday.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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This post first appeared on Grist.

Green tech is back in the green.

Global venture capital investment in green technology companies reached $4.04 billion in the first half of 2010, exceeding – slightly — the record set in the boom year of 2008, according to a preliminary report released Thursday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

Venture investment in the second quarter rose to $2.02 billion, up 43 percent from the year-ago quarter. Investments in the first half of the year spiked 65 percent from the same period in 2009.

“There’s been a very clear resurgence in solar activity and that is largely responsible for the strong quarter,” Richard Youngman, the Cleantech Group’s head of global research, said on a conference call Thursday.

Solar captured $811 million, or about 40 percent, of green technology investment in the second quarter, according to the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based consulting and research firm. It defines the global market as consisting of North America, China, India, Israel and Europe.

Solyndra, a Silicon Valley thin-film solar panel maker, scored a $175 million investment while solar power plant builder BrightSource Energy took in $150 million.

It’s no coincidence that both companies have been the beneficiaries of the Obama administration’s push for renewable energy. Solyndra received a $535 million loan guarantee to build a new factory in the San Francisco Bay Area (which the president visited in May) and BrightSource was granted a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to get its first solar thermal power plant online.

Despite the recession, corporate America poured a record $5.1 billion into green tech companies in the first half of 2010, a 325 percent increase from a year ago.

“The significant strengthening of corporate and utility investment into the cleantech sector, relative to 2009, is very encouraging, given the key role they will play in enabling broader adoption of clean technologies at scale,” Scott Smith, partner, Deloitte’s U.S. clean tech leader in the United States, said in a statement.

Youngman warned not to read too much into the success this week of Tesla Motor’s initial public offering. Though the Silicon Valley electric carmaker’s share price accelerated some 40.5 percent on opening day, he pointed out that high-profile IPOs from Solyndra and Goldwind, a Chinese wind turbine maker, were pulled recently.

In fact, head east if you want to get in on a booming IPO market –12 of the 19 green tech offerings in the second quarter came from Chinese companies and raised $1.73 billion, or 75 percent of the total IPO take, according to the Cleantech Group.

The flip side, of course, is that the anemic IPO market in the United States also is driving venture capital investment as green tech firms are forced to raise private money.

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photo: Sonoma County

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how government-chartered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are derailing an innovative program called Property Assessed Clean Energy. PACE programs finance the installation of solar panels and energy efficiency upgrades and let homeowners repay the loans through a 20-year surcharge on their property tax bills.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Obama administration is devoting $150 million in stimulus money for programs that help homeowners install solar panels and other energy improvements, which they pay for over time on their property tax bills.

At the same time, the two government-chartered agencies that buy and resell most home mortgages are threatening to derail the effort by warning that they might not accept loans for homes that take advantage of the special financing.

The mixed messages have alarmed state officials and prompted many local governments to freeze their programs, which have been hailed as an innovative way to help homeowners afford the retrofitting of a house with solar panels, which can cost $30,000 or more before incentives.

“The thing that is maddening is that this is having a real-life impact with companies laying off people and homeowners in limbo as all these projects are stalled,” said Clifford Rechtschaffen, a special assistant attorney general in California.

Under the financing programs, a local government borrows money through bonds or other means, and then uses it to make loans to homeowners to cover the upfront costs of solar installations or other energy improvements. Each owner repays the loan over 20 years through a special property tax assessment, which stays with the home even if it is sold.

The technique, known as Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, was pioneered by Berkeley, Calif., in 2008, and 22 states have authorized such programs, which are intended to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners to invest in energy efficiency. So far, only a few thousand people have used them.

But the Energy Department wants to promote the programs — and give an economic boost to companies that install energy systems — through the $150 million in stimulus funds, which are intended to help communities cover setup and administrative costs.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government entities that guarantee more than half of the residential mortgages in the United States, have different priorities. They are worried that taxpayers will end up as losers if a homeowner defaults on a mortgage on a home that uses such creative financing. Typically, property taxes must be paid first from any proceeds on a foreclosed home.

In letters sent to mortgage lenders on May 5, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stated that energy-efficiency liens could not take priority over a mortgage. “The purpose of this industry letter is to remind seller/servicers that an energy-related lien may not be senior to any mortgage delivered to Freddie Mac,” wrote Patricia J. McClung, a Freddie Mac executive.

However, the agencies did not offer guidance to mortgage lenders on how to handle properties that carry the energy liens. Backers of the programs fear that mortgage lenders, who depend on Fannie and Freddie to buy their home loans, will now start demanding that the entire lien be paid off before issuing a new loan.

That is what happened to Deke DeKay of Healdsburg, Calif., when he sold a house in nearby Geyserville in May. Mr. DeKay, who had purchased the foreclosed home as an investment, put in new insulation and heating and cooling systems, financed by $11,000 from Sonoma County’s program.

“We thought this would be an interesting way of upgrading the home’s energy efficiency without adding to the purchase price,” Mr. DeKay said. “Then right before the close of escrow, the bank discovered this stuff Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae put out and refused to approve the loan without the assessment being paid off first.”

Now Mr. DeKay is worried about his own home, which carries a $25,500 lien for a five-kilowatt solar array installed last year. “If we ever want to refinance the house, it will be impossible for us to do that,” he said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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