STARTING SMALL: Local efforts to trim emissions, change economies and alter behavior are good learning exercises for developing national climate and energy policy, experts say. Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/DougSchneiderPhoto
Call them the Silicon Valley garages of climate policy.
Local efforts to trim emissions, change economies and alter behavior are serving as idea labs where mistakes can be made and novel approaches honed in preparation for setting national climate and energy policy.
These ideas can have a powerful influence in the climate debate, say policy experts: Within the recently released climate bill are many lessons learned in these local laboratories. And as discussion in Congress intensifies, many lawmakers will find themselves pushed by proponents of these municipal efforts to extend their reach to the national stage.
"There's no doubt cities are the place where all these things are being tried," said Julia Parzan, coordinator of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network , a group of civic leaders dedicated to sharing the experiences of various municipal sustainable development efforts.
"And when they're hitting walls, they're going for (changes in) state policy and federal policy."
Exhibit A is the firestorm of revisions to municipal codes and state laws concerning how residential renewable energy and energy efficiency projects are financed.
It started in the spring of 2007, when staffers for the City of Berkeley, Calif., were casting about for a way to make roof-top solar affordable for a typical homeowner.
The ah-ha moment came as Cisco DeVries, then the top aide to Mayor Tom Bates, was untangling some knots in a neighborhood push to establish an underground utilities district, where homeowners agree to taxes on their properties to bury electric wires and cables.
If homeowners could diffuse the high costs of burying utility lines, DeVries reasoned, they should have the opportunity to do the same for the high up-front costs of putting solar panels on their roofs.
And so a new financing scheme was born. Berkeley pioneered the so-called Property Assessed Clean Energy program, where residents pay for household renewable energy and efficiency improvements over 20 years via a special tax or assessment on their property tax bills.
The idea took off like a brush fire.
DeVries left city government shortly thereafter. He helped launch Renewable Funding in 2008 in Oakland, Calif. with one other person. Today it a major player in the development of municipal clean-energy financing, with 50 employees and offices in six states. It is helping 240 local governments set up similar programs. Twenty states have amended their laws to facilitate such programs: Missouri last week, Minnesota last month; Florida is in the finishing stages.
"There are lots of ideas – good, bad and indifferent – and they never get any traction," said DeVries, who is president of the company. "But then there are moments when a window opens, and those moments are very powerful."