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Our Views: Hall shouldn’t rush into energy plan

POSTED: March 12, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Hall County commissioners are expected to vote today on whether to commit millions of tax dollars to expansive energy-efficiency projects that may, or may not, hold the promise of long-range expense savings.

Two consulting firms have prepared proposals for the county to consider. Siemens says it can save the county about $9 million in energy costs over a period of 15 years, with an outlay of some $6.6 million to capture the savings. For a completely separate project list, Pepco offers bigger savings and higher expenses, saying it can save $39 million over 15 years, at a cost of $20 million.

The projections by the paid consultants don’t, however, match those of the county’s financial staff. County Finance Director Vicki Neikirk says implementation of all the projects could cost as much as $3.5 million annually over 15 years, considerably higher than the numbers quoted by the two companies.

Neither plan has had nearly enough public discussion and objective evaluation to be considered for a vote, but nevertheless commissioners expect to do so today. At least one of the proposals, from Pepco, apparently had an infusion of new estimates after commissioners discussed it Monday night, and it has yet to be discussed by the commission as a body.

Going green and being environmentally friendly are certainly worthy goals, but not at the risk of wasted tax money. We aren’t convinced the proposals as presented aren’t more concerned with the green of dollars than of the environment.

Admittedly we don’t know a lot about the project lists, just surface-level discussions such as revamping lighting at government buildings, converting of vehicles to natural gas and tapping into methane in county landfills. That lack of details is part of the problem. Given the seemingly fluid nature of the plans, we doubt commissioners and county staffers are as informed as they would like to be, either.

Take conversion to natural gas as an example. Is the sheriff’s office on board with discussion of converting its vehicle fleet to a different type of fuel? What is the cost to retrofit existing equipment versus the cost of new equipment manufactured to run on natural gas? And how does that work for an entire fleet of vehicles when the county does well to purchase a few patrol cars each year?

Those natural gas fleets would be supported by methane plants at local landfills. Do we really want to bet those sums of money on what landfill regulations might be 15 years in the future?

And on that 15-year time frame over which great savings are supposed to be recognized: How much is environmental technology going to change in 15 years, and what impact will those changes have on the estimated savings to the county?

Who among us 15 years ago would have thought that the basic light bulb would one day be the focus of environmental controversy, or that the push toward ethanol would have such a dramatic effect on the corn market?

There is still far too much about the two proposals — which are independent from the other, so that either or both can be adopted or rejected ­— that simply hasn’t been adequately explained.

At the very least, commissioners need to postpone taking any action to approve and open the presentations up for public debate, discussion and critique. After all, if those savings are going to be there over 15 years, won’t they still be there if we take more time to study the proposal for a month, or six months?

But based on what has been discussed, rejection of the plans as being too big, too expensive and too lacking in detail would be the more prudent course of action.

If the county wants to improve its environmental footprint, it can do so in affordable small steps that can be monitored and measured as taken without the need for sudden sweeping change and 15-year payoffs.

The experts at Siemens and Pepco may be the kind of folks you’d love to share a round of golf with, or even to work for. But we aren’t convinced of the need to write them checks worth millions without a little more assurance that such an investment will make sense for the long haul.

In recent years the county has weathered hard economic times. It balanced budgets on the backs of its employees with furlough days and pay freezes. It cut spending, delayed projects and tightened the symbolic belt. Now it has emerged from those days and again has some money in the bank; let’s not squander what we fought so hard to save on changes that aren’t financially justified. There are too many other more obvious needs.

There has been far too little public debate on the energy issue for the county to take such a huge step. We think it’s time to say “thanks, but no thanks” and pursue energy efficiency in a smaller, more gradual fashion.


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