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Posted on Sat. Mar. 01, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Is 'green' technology finally becoming a reference to sound economics?

Proposed solar farm suggests yes, but county's hybrid experiment is incomplete

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This week's show will feature Fort Wayne Director of Public Works Bob Kennedy and City Utilities Deputy Director of Operations John Clark who will discuss how the city has coped with this winter's extreme weather. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

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Does the multimillion-dollar solar farm proposed for Fort Wayne International Airport similar to a privately funded venture in Indianapolis and electric-car maker Tesla's plan to raise $1.6 million in private capital for a new plant indicate that “green” energy is at long last a reference to sound economics as well as environmentalism?

Perhaps. But as a four-year experiment by the Allen County Building Department indicates, assessing the true value of alternative forms of power remains difficult.

When the department was shopping for five new vehicles in 2010, it bought five Ford Escape hybrids costing about $26,000 each – about $10,000 more per vehicle than the conventional model -- because a federal “stimulus” grant equalized the cost. But with those “green” subsidies are no longer available, Building Commissioner Dave Fuller says the purchase of additional hybrids is questionable despite their improved gas mileage and proven reliability.

Simply put, it's unclear whether the vehicles can remain in service long enough to justify the extra cost.

“We've had no (mechanical) problems with the hybrids, and they're averaging about 32 miles per gallon compared to 26 (for the department's gasoline-powered Escapes), Fuller said. “But we would have to drive the hybrids 150,000 miles for us to break even on the cost (without subsidies).”

So far, the vehicles have logged between 70,000 and 90,000 miles, but the department normally replaces similar vehicles after 100,000 miles in order to avoid the escalating repair costs normally associated with older vehicles.

“We have to weigh the risk vs. the reward (of keeping older hybrids in the fleet),” he said.

Complicating matters is the fact that budget pressures have forced the department to carry only one “spare” vehicle instead of the three it previously maintained. If a vehicle is not available, inspectors may not be able to visit construction sites -- causing potentially expensive delays for contractors. What's more, the lifespan of hybrid batteries remains uncertain, and Fuller said new batteries can cost thousands of dollars to replace.

Although some governments are willing to pay a premium for “green” vehicles because of their perceived environmental (or political) benefits, fuller said County Council has made it clear that its willingness to provide funding must be based on the bottom line.

But that does not mean the hybrids were an economic failure, only that the experiment is incomplete. The county should keep at least one of the hybrids in service indefinitely in order to impartially assess operating and maintenance expenses over time. If the vehicles can indeed remain reliable long enough to justify the added expense, it would be foolish not to buy more.

And that, really, is the threshold all forms energy, including the “green” kind, should be expected to meet.

There are always trade-offs, after all. Wind farms endanger birds, hydroelectric dams disrupt fish. And as the University of Pittsburgh has noted, many hybrid batteries require nickel that consumes more energy to produce and is often obtained through strip mining. And many of our traditional sources of energy would be more plentiful and less expensive if not for government interference (think keystone pipeline). Just this week, a top state economic development official noted how federal regulation of coal is jeopardizing the production of electricity Indiana needs to attract new jobs – regulation expected to increase costs to consumers as well.

No one wants to breath dirty air, which is why some of degree of regulatory trade-offs is also necessary (even though the founder of Greenpeace told a Senate committee this week there is no scientific proof of global warming). That's also why improvements in “green” technology are so desirable.

According to Vincent Liu, head of the solar division for Carmel-based Telamon, the firm considering the project at Fort Wayne International Airport, “the solar industry has seen drastic cost reduction in hardware and installation. It is estimated that grid-parity (the cost of generating electricity from solar/wind) (will be) the same as other means of generating electricity form fossil fuels without incentives before 2018.” Just last year, Telamon opened a privately funded $40 million solar farm at Indianapolis International Airport similar to the one proposed here.

One day, “green” energy may be able to meet most of our needs without breaking the bank. For now, however, America's economy depends upon its vast reserves of coal, natural gas and oil – and the continued development of new and more cost-effective technologies that will make us all breathe more easily, in more ways than one.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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