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Green BREC offers more than 'feel good' benefit

"Green BREC only benefit 'feel-good'," expressed a perceptive, realistic and fiscally conservative assessment of the city of Bemidji Sustainability Committee's project of installing 27.5 kW of photovoltaic (PV) panels to supply enough electricity to power the geothermal heat pumps that heat the BREC building. However, the editorial's cost-effectiveness finding was adversely based on unrealistic old-school direct-cost accounting rather than future-thinking full-cost accounting.

The full-cost of PV-sourced power is about $0.351/kWh, despite the unclear cost cited in news reports of the July 26 City Council work session. (The figure cited in the Pioneer editorial was order-of-magnitude accurate.) The direct-cost of coal-fired generation is about $0.07/kWh only because Minnkota is not yet required to pay for the damage its electric generation does to the planet. For fossil-fueled generation, direct cost is naturally a small fraction of full-cost. Most of the full-cost is deferred to future generations of humans and other inhabitants of this planet.

The full-cost of coal-fired generation presently includes $0.0068/kWh for CO2, $0.016/kWh for SO2, and $0.69/kWh for oxides of nitrogen. These costs reflect the harm done to infrastructure, agriculture and human health. The value of mercury in Lake Bemidji fish is not included, although we all know that we can't eat the fish like we could back in the 1960s. (Data is courtesy of Jason Edens' 2005 BSU Environmental Studies M.S. thesis, used by permission.)

Let's see, that brings the full-cost of coal-fired generation to $0.78/kWh, and we'll pretend that we never meant to eat the fish anyway. How does that compare to $0.351/kWh for PV generation? Better yet, if the city's Local Government Renewable Energy Grant (ARRA) proposal is successful, and if complementary funding brings the city's participation down to $54,000, the city's cost for PV-sourced electricity would be $0.07/kWh, and the city breaks even. How does that compare with $0.78/kWh for the full-cost of coal-fired generation? (I'll let you do the math there.)

David A. Bahr