NOMA — Like many residents concerned about the cost of installing solar panels on their roofs, Ann Giagni wasn’t sure the investment would be worth it. She was interested in solar and had been for years, but there was always that financial uncertainty.

That is until one afternoon last year when she visited the Farmers’ Market at Virginia Avenue Park. There she met with representatives from Solar Santa Monica, a program created by City Hall in 2006 to help residents and businesses determine if solar is right for them.

After a free energy audit that significantly reduced her family’s consumption of power, and some studying of rebates, Giagni took the plunge and couldn’t be happier with the results, which include significant savings on her electric bill.

“The goal for our country is to get off foreign oil, and each house with solar reduces our need,” said Giagni, who installed a 6.5 kilo-watt system for roughly $40,000. “That’s another step toward our goal.

“I am very satisfied.”

Giagni is one of 34 homeowners and five businesses that joined the “smart grid” in 2008, increasing the solar capacity of Santa Monica by 226kW of clean and renewable power for a total of over 1,000 kW. Thanks in large part to Solar Santa Monica, solar systems are now generating enough power each day to serve 400 homes.

While that’s a far cry from being energy independent, a goal set by the City Council for 2020 (Santa Monicans use an average of 150 mega-watts daily), Solar Santa Monica is well ahead of its 1.5MW, three-year goal, according to a report on the program that has yet to be released.

“I really have to applaud the city of Santa Monica for what they’ve done, and the good news is, more cities are following their lead,” said Scott Gordon, director of sales for HelioPower, one of Solar Santa Monica’s preferred contractors.

That said, Solar Santa Monica is not without problems. In the beginning, there were complaints of false leads and a permit process that was cumbersome and costly, causing some contractors to pause. Many of the issues stemmed from uncertainty about solar and relative inexperience by city staff when it came to approving projects. Regulations on the books were outdated and needed to be revised for things to move smoothly.

“The program has helped my business … but it would be more effective if [Solar Santa Monica staff] had more power to implement change,” said Mark Smith of Solar Forward, a vocal critic of the permit process who believes City Hall should have made improvements in planning before launching Solar Santa Monica. “You can’t accomplish your goals if you have a bottleneck.”

Over the last two years, new guidelines have been established, inspectors brought up to speed and a new culture has emerged in the planning department to address years of complaints about the permit and plan check process, said Eileen Fogarty, director of planning.

“It takes time,” Fogarty said of the changes she has instituted. “First we looked at those out in the field and how to create better consistency and predictability [with inspections] … so we don’t have a variation in responses, which is one of the biggest issues we heard. Now we are focusing on better ways to give service right at the counter.”

While the process isn’t perfect, contractors said they have noticed a difference and are pleased.

Now, the only obstacle standing in the way of continued success seems to be the economy, with Solar Santa Monica staff forced to cut back their budget, the results of which are not yet known.

“We want the program to be sustainable and for that to happen we need to find a way to be more cost manageable,” said Susan Munves, who manages Solar Santa Monica.

Munves’ staff is small, relying heavily on an independent consultant, EcoMotion, which has experts on the ground meeting with residents and business owners to assess needs. City Hall pays EcoMotion $490,000 a year for its services, a figure that will be significantly reduced.

“We know budgets are tight,” said Ted Flanigan of EcoMotion. “The main thing is maintaining our presence in Santa Monica.”

Flanigan said EcoMotion, because of budget constraints, is focusing on larger projects, such as multi-family dwellings and large businesses.

Step by step

The process begins when someone interested in solar energy contacts Solar Santa Monica for an energy audit. Experts conduct the audit and find ways to save, such as replacing old appliances with more energy-efficient models. Once the audit is complete, Solar Santa Monica determines if solar is cost effective.

If a resident or business owners decides to move forward, they are provided a list of preferred contractors who have been vetted by city staff and guarantee set prices for each size of solar system. Contractors are able to offer systems at a discount because they are not having to do the original assessments of the home or business, nor do they have to spend time finding customers.

“By having the city’s stamp of approval, it gives us credibility,” said Herb Mendelsohn of PermaCity Corp., a preferred contractor that has worked on 10 residential projects and three commercial through Solar Santa Monica.

Those interested in solar are not obligated to work with a preferred contractor.

Mendelsohn did say that getting permits still takes longer than in other municipalities, but Santa Monica is not the most difficult city to work with and notices the process is moving faster. All permit fees are waived for solar projects as a way to encourage solar.

“It would be nice if permits were expedited, and it is a longer process than we would like, but it hasn’t been overly cumbersome,” Mendelsohn said.

Future looks bright

The proof is in the projects already lined up for 2009. According to a report by EcoMotion, there are 2.3 MW of solar projects in the pipeline, including a 241kW system at Santa Monica College, an 80 kW system at Santa Monica Place, a 400 kW system at Red Bull and 1,000kW at projects at public school sites.

While the sluggish economy may be putting a damper on things, new legislation and faith in the Obama administration may help to keep consumers encouraged.

Tax credits have been extended and Solar Santa Monica is working on a bill that would create “feed-in tariff” which energy companies would pay to consumers for electricity fed back into the electricity grid from a renewable source like solar.

Another bill AB 811, approved in the summer of 2008, allows cities to offer loans to residents for efficiency and solar upgrades, with repayment being received through property taxes. City staff is working on a proposal that could go into effect later this year.

The momentum around solar is translating into more jobs, said Gordon, who is reviewing resumes for an expanded sales staff.

“We’re one of the bright spots in the economy,” Gordon said. “People may not be buying cars, but they are buying solar.”

While Solar Santa Monica has not been as lucrative as Gordon thought it would be when HelioPower signed up, he feels it has helped his company’s reputation and reach, all while moving solar forward.

“Solar Santa Monica’s reputation is impressive,” he said. “Could it improve? Of Course, but the great thing is [Solar Santa Monica staff] are very open to feedback and I think they’ve responded.”

kevinh@smdp.com