Fairfax County’s C-PACE program is the first in the state to make climate change resiliency projects eligible for loans.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax needs new heating and air conditioning.

The church has undertaken a number of projects in recent years to improve the energy efficiency of its building in Oakton, installing new windows and replacing all of its existing light fixtures with LED lighting, but upgrading the HVAC system may be the most daunting task yet.

The facility currently utilizes several different heating and air conditioning units, and some of them are either at or even past the end of their life cycle, UUCF member Dave Anderson says.

The congregation wants to replace the older units simultaneously instead of waiting for them to falter one by one.

What looked like a costly project could now be much more feasible if the congregation decides to participate in a new Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resiliency program that Fairfax County officially launched on Feb. 13.

“Money is the big obstacle for a lot of these projects,” Anderson, who volunteers with UUCF’s climate action advocacy group, said. “Any program that supports these in a way that makes it more affordable for especially nonprofit organizations like ours that have tight budgets, it’s a wonderful thing, and we certainly support that.”

Fairfax County’s C-PACE program gives commercial building owners an avenue for obtaining private funding to support capital improvement projects intended to save energy or water, or to make their property more resilient to climate-related threats.

Managed by the county and administered by the Virginia PACE Authority, the program offers building owners access typically long-term loans so they can make substantial improvements to older buildings or add sustainable technology to new buildings at little to no upfront cost.

Property owners then repay the loans through property tax assessments.

Fairfax County is not the first Virginia locality to adopt a C-PACE program. That designation belongs to Arlington County, which launched its program in January 2018, according to the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the energy efficiency industry.

However, Fairfax County is the first jurisdiction in Virginia to make resiliency improvements – specifically projects that address stormwater issues or risks related to flooding, high winds, or extreme heat – eligible for its C-PACE program.

Qualifying resiliency projects have to be independently verified by a professional engineer before financing is approved, Fairfax County says.

The Fairfax County government and public school system have started to ramp up efforts to address their own energy efficiency and climate impacts, but the C-PACE program is a crucial tool for encouraging commercial property owners to make improvements.

Combined, the county government and schools are responsible for 3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced in Fairfax County with the remaining 97 percent caused by the private sector. Building energy is the biggest source of emissions, followed by transportation, according to Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination director Kambiz Agazi.

“The Fairfax County C-PACE program will support responsible, sustainable development of commercial property and will help ensure the long-term resiliency of our local and regional economy,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “By investing in projects to improve the energy efficiency, water use and resilience of their properties, commercial building owners commit to being good stewards of their resources and good citizens of our county.”

Fairfax County’s C-PACE program has been in the works since June 12, 2018, when Agazi, who was the environmental and energy coordinator at that time, and other county staff members presented a proposal for the program to the Board of Supervisors environmental committee.

As required by Virginia law, the Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance establishing its C-PACE program on Mar. 19, 2019.

The county started soliciting competitive bids for a private company to administer the program and awarded the Virginia PACE Authority a contract in November.

A nonprofit organization formed in 2018, the Virginia PACE Authority is responsible for helping property owners secure loans from approved capital providers, tracking the progress of the loans, and overseeing and marketing the overall program. It has also been contracted to administer the C-PACE programs for Loudoun County and the City of Petersburg.

As the program manager, Fairfax County does not lend money or enforce its repayment, but it instead places a lien on properties that take out C-PACE loans, which lets private lenders offer loans that are more attractive than traditional commercial bank loans, according to the county.

In Virginia, C-PACE programs are open to commercial, industrial, and nonprofit properties as well as multi-family residential properties with at least five units, but not condominiums.

Eligible projects include lighting upgrades, heating and ventilation, insulation, water conserving fixtures, reflective or green roofing, and renewable energy technology, such as solar panels, fuel cells, wind turbines, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Fairfax County will be holding a series of workshops this spring for commercial business owners who want to learn more about its C-PACE program, but Agazi says the county has already heard from some interested property owners, including a couple of commercial establishments and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax.

“The C-PACE program is not just about helping the county meet its climate goals,” Agazi said. “…With the competing commercial market, it’s important that, when [businesses] want to market their buildings, they’re able to market their buildings as being highly efficient buildings. So, I think that this has an economic success benefit to it, too.”

The C-PACE program is part of a broader push by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the county’s public schools to make energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions reductions a priority.

Citing a 2018 United Nations report that urged governments to reduce emissions 45 percent by 2030 to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck introduced a board matter with McKay and Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust on Feb. 5, 2019 that directed staff to look at actions Fairfax County can take to address climate change.

In addition to adopting C-PACE and expediting consideration of a residential PACE program, which remains ongoing, proposed initiatives included developing a community-wide energy and climate action plan, or CECAP, setting a goal for offsetting county government energy usage with locally generated energy like solar by 2025, and accelerating targets in the operational energy strategy that the Board of Supervisors adopted in July 2018.

The operational energy strategy established goals for Fairfax County to meet in areas like energy and water use and efficiency, electric vehicles, waste management, and green building.

Since adopting Storck’s Fairfax Green Initiatives board matter, the Board of Supervisors has set up a joint environmental task force with the Fairfax County School Board and the county office of environmental and energy coordination, appointing Agazi as its director on July 16.

Fairfax County launched the largest solar power purchase agreement initiative undertaken by a local municipality in Virginia on Dec. 10, awarding contracts to providers for solar photovoltaic array installations at 113 proposed county government, school, and park sites.

The county also initiated the development process for its first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan on Jan. 7.

First proposed to the Board of Supervisors’ environmental committee in April 2019, the CECAP will include an updated greenhouse gas inventory, targets for reducing emissions, and strategies for mitigating climate change and the impact of climate-related events on county residents and businesses.

CECAP focus groups of community members representing each Fairfax County magisterial district have been meeting regularly since Jan. 6 with the Braddock District group holding the most recent meeting on Feb. 17. The Mount Vernon District group is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 25.

Fairfax County also has a CECAP task force whose members include a liaison from each focus group as well as representatives of local government agencies, civic associations, the business community, nonprofits focused on the environment, civil rights, and community issues, and other stakeholders.

The task force held an initial kick-off meeting in Fairfax on Jan. 24 and is scheduled to convene again at the Fairfax County Government Center at 6:00 p.m. on Mar. 31. The group will meet 10 times over the course of the CECAP planning process, which is expected to take 18 months with a final report submitted to the Board of Supervisors in mid-2021.

“All of these programs are sort of pieces of the puzzle,” Agazi said. “I think that, as we begin to unveil them, they’ll become a little bit more clear through the CECAP process how all these pieces fit together and how they work to help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the county as a whole.”

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