Sunday’s front page featured a story about how Edina and other suburban communities are installing solar projects that claim to reduce our “carbon footprint” and reflect a shift in “consciousness.” (“Suburbs show the way to find energy savings,” Jan. 15). There is more to the story.

The Center of the American Experiment did a study back in 2014 that checked the costs and claims of these now-popular programs. We concluded that a better educated citizenry could help elected officials and their staffs make more informed decisions about these projects.

 

Currently, cities are using federal and other grants to offset the costs of these “consciousness raising” projects. We found that cities view the grants as “free money” when calculating the return on investment, as if local taxpayers do not pay the federal taxes used to fund the grants.

For example, Edina installed a $200,000, 24-kilowatt solar power plant on top of its City Hall in 2011 that saved about $1,300 a year in electricity purchases from Xcel, producing a 154-year payback period. The solar panels only have a useful life of a few decades, so the project makes no fiscal sense. That is where the grants come in: The installation cost was offset by a federal grant of $80,000. The remaining cost was covered by a grant from Xcel, funded by other Xcel ratepayers.

Cities are rewarded for doing these “green” projects by Minnesota’s GreenSteps Cities program. Cities even get little wooden blocks made from “reclaimed urban wood” to display when they hit a new milestone.

In the end, Edina contributed nothing except staff time to get the grants and the rooftop at city hall. Sounds brilliant, right? The city got someone else to pay all the costs, and gets to pocket the savings each year. But of course somebody did pay for it: federal taxpayers and Xcel ratepayers, 50,000 of whom live in Edina.

The city, knowing all this, still proudly viewed this as a “demonstration project” to encourage residents to use energy that does not produce greenhouse gases. When asked about the costs around the production and eventual disposal of the solar panels, both of which use lots of carbon-based energy and involve toxic sludge and waste, the city said it had not taken those factors into account.

This is why we fondly called the project “Green Bling.”

But to be fair, what about the reduction in carbon emissions? And shouldn’t Edina be able to “Go Green” if it wants to? First, Edina can Go Green, but it should do so on its own dime. Second, the scale of these city projects is too small to create any measurable reduction in greenhouse gases. And yes, even if all the little projects add up to a lower overall U.S. emission rate (a very dubious proposition), money spent on other, less-exciting conservation measures would most likely deliver much more immediate returns. (This also assumes that carbon emissions are having an impact on the environment, which is a subject for another day.)

Other cities we looked at did not do as well as Edina in getting someone else to cover their costs. As a result, uneconomic solar projects, taking 50 to 100 years to pay for themselves, are being built around the state with taxpayer and ratepayer funds.

This is where the educated voter comes in: Cities are still very much within the reach of the average citizens. We encourage Minnesotans to take a closer look at what your city staff is putting in front of your city council. And take a look at who is volunteering on local committees: That is where many of these ideas begin. Ask hard questions about the return on investment, and help your councils make better decisions. When it makes sense, help them to just say “no” to “free” grants and federal money while embracing true conservation measures that better our cities.

Kim Crockett is vice president at the Center of the American Experiment.