Sullivan County government took an important step toward a sustainable energy future when county officials inaugurated a solar photovoltaic (PV) installation at a county office building in Liberty. The solar array is expected to produce 49.8 kilowatts (kw) of electricity for the Robert B. Travis building, which houses the county’s department of family services. The county’s first solar venture was a 15 kw solar demonstration project at the Bethel bus facility constructed several years ago.
Sullivan County’s decisive action to build the new solar array should serve as an example to other local officials.
First, this solar project is good energy policy. It replaces dirty fossil fuels with the clean sustainable energy of the sun. Second, it is good environmental policy. By generating an estimated 60,200 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy annually, 45 tons of carbon dioxide will not pour into the atmosphere every year. Third, the solar array saves taxpayer dollars. Projected to save an estimated $7,500 dollars a year in electricity costs, this annual saving will increase over time as utility rates rise.
Finally, the project is a perfect example of a successful partnership between government and citizens.
In this case, Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (SASD), a community organization, secured 100% of the financing by acting as consultants to Sullivan County. Grant funds came from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Dick Riseling of SASD and the Sullivan County Sustainability Committee submitted the grant applications.
So, here’s the question: if renewable solar PV energy is good policy for the county, why not for municipal governments, too?
The question sent us back a few years to reconsider how the Town of Callicoon rejected a proposal to install a solar project at its town barn. (Briefly the town hall was also considered.) Voting was along party lines—two Democrats in favor and three Republicans against—the board turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and incentives. One of the main reasons dissenters gave was that in tough economic times government should not be giving away grant money or offering incentives. (Ironically, their decision simply sent those funds to other projects in other New York towns.)
Today, many conservatives embrace the idea that the government cannot afford to spend public money to invest in our future. For them, this political ideology trumps any recognized need for a long-term, public-financed energy policy that fosters the development of alternative and renewable energy. However, we would all do well to remember that government defense and space-race investment brought us computers and other technologies that grew the economy and created jobs. The interstate highway system, too, was built with public money and helped bring prosperity to the nation.
Spending public funds for infrastructure that benefits the public at large and the economy, rather than relying entirely on the marketplace and private investment, is a good idea. This is particularly the case where the marketplace is dominated by a fossil-fuel-driven economic system that cannot see an alternative future yet, a system that values present-day profits over long-term sustainability.
And the public is coming to this same conclusion. Two recent polls, conducted this election season, are worth noting. One shows that 92% of today’s voters believe it is important for the U.S. to develop and use more solar energy. Further, 78% of respondents said the federal government should provide financial incentives for solar, including 63% of Republicans surveyed. (Hart Research conducted the poll for the Solar Energy Industries Association.)
A second poll finds that 90% of Republicans believe it is important for America’s future to be a leader in developing, manufacturing and deploying advanced energy products including batteries, solar photovoltaic (PV) modules and turbine components. (The poll was conducted for the Advanced Energy Economy Institute.)
In the light of these numbers, political leaders, especially some conservatives, appear increasingly to be swimming against the tide of public opinion. It is time for these leaders to step up and lead.
We salute Sullivan County officials, who are not only talking the talk about developing a sustainable energy future, but also are walking the walk. We urge other local municipal officials to take note and consider doing the same.