Keeping PACE with the States

Despite the uncertain future of comprehensive federal climate legislation, states continue to move forward with energy policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers money on their electricity bills. One policy in particular is quickly gaining traction in the states: Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, programs. Twenty-three states plus Washington, DC, have PACE legislation, and 13 others have proposals on the table including Kentucky, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

PACE is an innovative funding mechanism that addresses many of the financial barriers to energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits on residential, commercial, and industrial properties. In general through PACE states delegate authority to local governments to designate an improvement district and issue bonds, which provide low-interest, long-term loans to property owners for energy saving measures. The loans are paid back through an addition on the property tax bill and often over a 20-year period. If the property is sold, the debt transfers to the new owner. PACE programs usually create a lien on properties that is “senior” to (i.e., takes precedence over) other obligations on the property.

Because PACE is run by local governments, there are different styles of implementation for the various program elements including: program administration, underwriting criteria, source of funds, eligible measures, and quality control.  For example, San Francisco uses a third party for administrative functions and issues “mini-bonds” to be purchased by a pre-determined investor, while Babylon County, in New York, uses in-house staff to administrate and has repurposed an existing solid waste fund for financing. 

The White House strongly supports initiatives that make it easier for homeowners to get loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, and PACE programs have benefited from $150 million in stimulus funding. In an effort to standardize best practices and ensure that PACE is good policy for all stakeholders, the White House released a Policy Framework for PACE Financing Programs in October 2009. The measures initially accelerated the adoption of PACE and served as a guide for the second generation of PACE programs.

However, both existing and developing programs have been slowed or halted entirely due to opposition from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.  In May, both agencies sent letters to mortgage lenders reminding them that an energy-related lien may not be senior to a federally backed mortgage. The letters place a burden on the lender to determine if they originate mortgages in any state or locality that permits a first lien priority on energy loans. Proponents of PACE and its senior lien provision say it is a necessary requirement for local governments to raise funds. 

Following Freddie and Fannie, on July 14 the Federal Housing and Financing Agency (FHFA) released a statement of their opposition to PACE. As a result, the California attorney general’s office has sued the FHFA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac for their actions and unwillingness to guarantee properties with PACE assessments. The July 14 lawsuit asks the court to declare that PACE does not violate the standards of Fannie and Freddie and also requests an injunction to prevent the agencies from taking action against home owners with PACE loans. Congress is also working on legislation that would require Freddie and Fannie to use underwriting standards that would facilitate the use of PACE programs. With a scarcity of financing options that overcome the high upfront cost of retrofits, this is an issue worth watching closely.

Olivia Nix is the Innovative Solutions intern