When the sun shines upon occasion over Northern New York at this time of year, the warmth stirs life in the trees, starts the flow of maple sap, brings animals out of their winter doldrums and reminds the Northern Hemisphere that winter is nearly behind us.
And with the new political interest of freeing our economy from oil, natural gas and coal, the heat of the sun conjures up all sorts of animal spirits. The visions of free electricity, lower energy costs and, of course, lower taxes.
The hamlet of LaFargeville is looking at the sun as it completes installation of a solar array that covers half an acre of land near its wastewater treatment plant. The promise is exciting. A reduction in the energy operating expenses of the facility may free money for further investment in the plant, assuring tax and rate payers stable costs into the future.
But is this investment a good one for taxpayers and every user of electricity across the state? No it is not. The state Energy Research and Development Authority and the state Environmental Facilities Corp. combined to grant the town of Orleans $380,000 to build the solar array. The grant covered 90 percent of the cost of the project. Much of this money comes from a monthly charge paid by every user of electricity across the state. The tax based upon the amount of electricity you consume is then spent on energy projects that may reduce the amount of electricity someone else uses in the future. The goal of a greener New York is accomplished.
Unfortunately, look at the basic economics of this investment. The town has spent $422,222 on a project to save up to $20,000 a year. That means it will take more than 21 years to earn back the money invested. That is not a sound economic decision and wastes taxpayers money in looking for a politically popular green seal of approval. No one could expect to use the cost savings to cover interest and principal payments for a loan to finance this project.
The payback assumes the solar panels work perfectly for 21 years, not requiring any electrical maintenance and no upgrades or repairs to the panels or to their concrete footings in the earth. Not likely to happen.
Instead, the investment of tax dollars today leaves the town with an expensive facility requiring undetermined future costs with a promise that monthly electric bills will decline a minuscule amount. Not a very good deal except for the solar panel manufacturer, who just may have manufactured them using a direct federal tax payer subsidy.