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Board to decide on energy project tonight
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Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting

Where: Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville

When: 6 tonight

Our Views: Hall shouldn’t rush into energy plan

The Hall County Board of Commissioners will meet tonight to decide whether to enter into contracts with Siemens and Pepco Energy Services for proposed energy-efficiency projects over a 15-year window.

But changing estimates have raised concerns about whether the proposed cost savings can offset the project expenses.

Siemens and Pepco reviewed energy performance at several government buildings and public safety facilities, as well as plans to capture natural gas from local landfills for use in county vehicles.

By installing lighting and water retrofits, and upgrading building heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, among other things, Siemens reports the county can save about $9 million in utilities costs over 15 years. The cost for these upgrades is estimated at $6.6 million.

Meanwhile, Pepco reports it can save the county about $39 million over 15 years with a project costing more than $20 million.

The project includes lighting retrofits at area libraries and community centers, as well as converting sheriff’s office patrol cars and other county vehicles from diesel and gasoline to compressed natural gas.

But the inherent difficulty in estimating long-term costs and savings, coupled with the unknowns of how much utility costs will rise over 15 years and whether today’s technology will be out of date by then, have some commissioners wary about moving forward with the contracts.

“The problem I think with it is we’ve made it too big,” said commission Chairman Richard Mecum, adding he’d like to set priorities on the projects and take them one by one rather than commit to a 15-year overhaul with little assurance that estimated savings can be met.

County Finance Director Vickie Neikirk said the project costs could run between $2.3 million and about $3.5 million annually over the 15-year window identified for the energy-efficient upgrades, another sticking point in projecting the ultimate savings.

Moreover, Mecum told The Times on Tuesday that Pepco had revised its cost estimates as late as Monday night. Total project costs for proposed energy upgrades by both firms could exceed $46 million, he added.

“I think the amazing part is it just keeps changing,” Mecum said about the project costs. “When you look at that, it takes your breath away.”

Some commissioners have openly wondered whether the county can absorb these costs, and whether it might be better to undertake the efficiency upgrades on their own without contracting out the projects.

“I’m going to have to see a lot more detail” before approving the contracts, Commissioner Scott Gibbs told The Times on Tuesday.

Commissioner Jeff Stowe said he met with county officials for about three hours Tuesday to get more information on the proposed projects. He said he plans to meet with representatives of Siemens today before making his final decision on whether to vote for the contracts.

“The county is in a totally different financial picture today,” Stowe added, before hedging his bets. “It could be a good idea.”

Commissioners Craig Lutz and Billy Powell didn’t return phone calls seeking comment on the issue.

Finally, whether the environmental benefits of the proposed upgrades make the project costs sustainable remains up for debate.

All these factors are something the public must be involved in deciding, Mecum said.

“Let’s look at it a little more closely,” he added. “The community needs to know what in the world we’re doing.”