GUEST OPINION: Renewable energy is economic development for Baker County
Want to learn more?
The Baker County renewable energy conference is set for 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7 and 8, at the Baker City Armory, 1640 Campbell St.
Registration per day is $25, with the cost paying for meals and printed materials.
For more information, phone Robin Nudd with the board of commissioners, 523-8200, or visit this .
By RANDY JOSEPH
Why should the citizens of Baker County become involved and invest in renewable energy?
First, it's good for the environment. Renewable energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions, a cause of global warming, and produces less pollution than fossil fuels or no pollution at all. But there are additional benefits that may have a greater impact on us locally: benefits to our economy, our schools, our air quality, and our security.
If we produce renewable energy in Baker County, regardless of the type, the amount, or the consumer who uses it, it is "economic development." It is economic development because we keep our energy dollars in the community and thereby create jobs and wealth for ourselves.
Let's look at Mason Dam as an example. For the average year, while making the construction payment, the net income would provide Baker County with approximately $125,000 in revenue. No great amount in a $20 million dollar annual budget, but it is two full-time, family wage jobs. And if each family had the average two kids in school, at the state support level of $5,000 for each child, that is $20,000 in additional funding brought into the community through the schools.
On top of this you have the multiplier effect; by generating more economic activity, the multiplier effect increases the impact of the dollar 1.5 to 2 times. This has turned $125,000 into over $200,000 for the local economy. After the construction costs are paid, the average annual net income to the county will nearly triple to $370,000 using today's electric rates. Using the same assumption as above, six jobs and 12 children in school, times the multiplier effect for a total of $645,000 annually.
The real opportunity here is to look at all the possible renewable energy projects in the same light. These are projects that we can choose to do ourselves, projects that don't require a new company to come to town, projects that qualify for federal and state low-interest loans and grants and projects that we may already be spending money on.
Fuels for Schools is sweeping the west like wild fire. It started four years ago in Darby, Mont., and now there are 34 schools in five states involved in some stage of the program. Fuels for Schools involves replacing or adding to the existing boiler, primarily natural gas or fuel oil, with a new high-efficiency wood chip or wood pellet boiler and the other necessary equipment.. At this time the school may also choose to have an energy analysis done and to upgrade to a more energy-efficient building.
To the school there is generally no change in expenditures. The school budget remains dollar neutral, for the switch to a biomass boiler and energy upgrade. The cost of the new equipment and improvements are paid for by the savings in the fuel cost, woody biomass being less expensive then gas or oil. So why bother?
This program was started four years ago and those schools are now, with higher fuel cost, very glad they made the switch. They have stabilized their heating budget. When I asked the Baker 5J School Board how much they increased this year's heating budget, I was told 8 percent. When I asked what they expected for next year they didn't know. I don't think anyone does know, but I wonder where the money will come from.
Besides stabilizing the heating budget we have other incentives too. Environmental we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by switching from fossil fuel to biomass, and we also improve our local air quality by removing material that would have been burned in either a forest fire or a prescribed burn. And we create jobs: logging, hauling, chipping and delivery are all a necessary part of the program. But by far the greatest benefit is keeping our dollars in the community.
Presently over 80 percent of the money spent on fossil fuels leaves not only the area but the state. By keeping these dollars in our community we can have an impact on the local economy and a real savings for the future.
Other renewable energy projects that fit this mold are wind, biodiesel and municipal solid waste.
Minnesota has led the nation in proving that farmers and ranchers along with their neighbors can invest in a local wind farm, keeping 80 percent of that income in their community. Iowa has done the same for biodiesel, and by adding another crop to the wheat rotation, canola, and investing in a processing facility, Baker County farmers could begin producing their own biodiesel.
The renewable energy project that I have the most hope for is the facility that could be built to separate the garbage, removing the recyclables and generating electricity from the biomass, and putting the remaining 15 percent in the landfill. This facility, in combination with the Fuels for Schools program, could become the hub for the processing of forest waste into fuel not only for the schools but for other commercial and residential customers in the area.
All the renewable energy projects mentioned have proven technology in place and are economically viable using the criteria for community energy that was outlined above. What is needed is the social will to move these and similar projects forward.
About the writer
Randy Joseph is chair of the Baker County Power Generation Task Force.