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Virginia church’s efficiency retrofit poised to be state’s first PACE project

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax wants to finance upgrades to its sprawling, 1960s-era HVAC system.
A Fairfax County church would be the first Virginia property statewide to tap into an initiative designed to quicken affordable upgrades to greener energy.

Handfuls of Virginia cities and counties have initiated C-PACE programs — short for commercial property-assessed clean energy — but no on-the-ground projects have yet materialized. The idea is to match businesses and nonprofits with private lenders.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax is eyeing what amounts to a long-term loan to replace the bulk of the sprawling, 1960s-era HVAC system on its northern Virginia campus. What’s appealing about the financing option is that congregants don’t have to bear upfront costs and the energy savings can cover the project’s price tag over time.

Dave Anderson, a 35-year member of the church, has been tracking Fairfax’s progress on its C-PACE ordinance, which launched in February after the Board of Supervisors approved it last year.

“We’re wading into this one step at a time,” said Anderson, a retired information technology specialist. “It’s kind of an experiment. We’ve been pre-approved and are now defining the project and working with an energy consultant.”

Fairfax County’s program is open to owners of nonprofits, commercial and industrial buildings, and multifamily residences with five or more units that aren’t condominiums.

Under C-PACE, the borrower pays the note from the private lender just like any other loan. Local government officials don’t lend money or guarantee the collection of funds, but they do levy a tax lien on each property that can be enforced if the borrower is delinquent.

“On the energy and environment front, this is a tool in the toolbox,” said Kambiz Agazi, who directs the county’s Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination. “It’s not a silver bullet."

Fairfax’s ordinance is unique because it’s the first to incorporate resiliency improvements to buildings and their surroundings that address flooding, high winds, extreme heat and stormwater runoff.

Fairfax selected Abby Johnson, founder of the Virginia PACE Authority, to administer its program. She is also president of a Williamsburg-based real estate advisory firm that specializes in financing the greening of commercial buildings.

For the past six years, Johnson has specialized in ramping up PACE financing in markets across the country.

Like other PACE backers, Johnson is thrilled to be able to point to a potential inaugural project for an endeavor that has been slow to gain traction in Virginia.

“It’s exciting that we’re gaining some momentum,” she said, adding that one tricky hurdle requires C-PACE participants to get consent from their existing mortgage holder. “Hopefully, we’ll see our first deal.”

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