Back in January, one of the more widely embraced arguments in defense of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was that the bill would spark a national clean energy revolution. This revolution would be a twofer, so the proponents said, that would create thousands of good paying "green jobs" and help to end our reliance on the dirty, carbon based, and imported fuels that our economy has come to depend on.
Roughly $70 billion was set aside in ARRA to fund the revolution. Early White House estimates predicted that nearly half a million jobs would be created by the end of 2010 from stimulus-funded investments in advanced energy technologies and projects. These funds are just now starting to trickle into Ohio, so it is hard at this point to predict how the state's energy portfolio will be transformed by the stimulus bill. But if a U.S. Forest Service energy project in Wayne National Forest (brought to my attention by a contact of mine on the hill) is any predictor, American tax payers are in for a pretty big let down.
Displayed proudly on the U.S. Forest Service's ARRA Success Stories web page, is an entry about a $400,000 project to upgrade a solar system on the roof of the Wayne National Forest's Supervisor's Office near Nelsonville, Ohio. In March, Wayne National Forest (Ohio's only national forest) was awarded nearly $400,000 in stimulus funding to install an additional 252 solar panels to its 2-year-old solar energy system. The forest service had previously installed a 20-panel solar energy system, at a cost of $33,000 in 2007, and added 30 more solar panels at a cost of $35,000 in 2008. This 50-panel system generated about seven percent of the building’s energy needs during peak production months.
In a March press release, the forest service claimed that the combined 302 panels would supply 50 percent of the building’s energy needs and that four local jobs would be created. After the project was completed in August, the Forest Service revised expectations and announced that the solar panels would generate about 30 to 34 percent of the building’s electricity during peak production months, but average only 15 to 20 percent annually.
Thanks to information provided on the U.S. Forest Service's website, we are given enough to be able to do a back of the envelope cost-benefit analysis of the project. According to personnel at the Wayne National Forest, the building's electricity bill in 2007 was $31,000 (based on an average electricity price of 9.4 cents per kilowat hour). If you give the engineers the benefit of the doubt and say that the new system is able to achieve a 20 percent reduction on annual electricity costs, that equates to a savings of approximately $6,200 a year on electricity costs.
When the annual savings are divided against the cost of the new solar panel system plus the cost of the 50 panels that had previously been installed ($468,000), and given that there will be no dramatic spike in the cost of electricity, the length of time that it will take for the system to pay for itself is around 75 years. Of course, this does not take into account maintenance costs or the diminishing generation rate of the panels as they age.
This is a ridiculously long return on investment in and of itself, but keep in mind that the estimated lifetime of your average solar panel is around 25 years.
A good idea? You be the judge. The project will be a stop on the Green Energy Ohio 2009 Ohio Solar Tour on October 3 and 4th. I'd encourage you to stop by and let them know how you really feel about it.