Commentary: When 'going green' makes you blush

Mar 4, 2011

Murray, KY – English author Thomas Fuller wrote "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry." In the past decade, we've seen a well-spring of green projects cropping up across the world. Most of these have the interest of sustainability and preservation at heart, but not all of them are financially feasible. Commentator Richard Nelson says alternative energy is a likely solution to our future needs, but some green projects cost too much of another kind of green to be economically worthwhile.

With gas prices on the rise and instability in the Middle East, alternative energy is attractive and is likely to become a critical component to our future energy needs. But not all alternative energy proposals make sense as I quickly learned at a recent Trigg County Fiscal Court meeting where I serve as magistrate.

Here's the scoop: Trigg County Hospital was recently designated the recipient of a $1 million bio-fuel grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package passed in 2009. The money was intended to stimulate green industry and alternative energy. In this case, it would allow the hospital to create a heat source that uses woodchips which are in plentiful supply after the 2009 ice storm. The Trigg County Fiscal Court was asked to approve the grant, which was projected to save the hospital about $11,000 a year. Any kind of savings for the hospital is good, but the details revealed a different picture:

Life-span of the $1 million project = about 25 years

Total savings (at most) = $275,000

Total Loss = $725,000

Consideration of the American taxpayer = priceless

Like the vintage Visa commercial, some things, like fiscal responsibility, don't carry a price tag. We lament pork barrel spending and fiscal irresponsibility that has garnered $14 trillion in national debt and is leading to the insolvency of Medicaid and Social Security. In fact, American taxpayers took away Congress' credit card and demand fiscal responsibility as evidenced by a landslide of new leadership in Washington. So if we demand it from the feds, isn't it up to us to first demonstrate fiscal responsibility at home, even if there might be some short-term benefit?

One of my colleagues agreed that he would never have invested his own money that way. I agree. So why should we spend taxpayer dollars that way? Another colleague said that if we didn't take the money, somebody else would have. He's right. It's a temptation difficult for any local official to resist. But what about our children and future generations who will be left with the bill incurred from our collective spending binge? This is a question several new leaders are asking.

Earlier this month, Florida Governor Rick Scott declined $2.4 billion in federal stimulus grants designated for high-speed rail funding. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declined $810 million, and Ohio Governor John Kasich declined nearly $400 million for similar projects. These were "green" federal stimulus grants, but they weren't economically viable according to the governors, and would have cost too much of another kind of "green" in the long run. So each of the governors turned down their respective offers.

The Trigg County project is one of 30 biomass energy projects in 14 states that cost a total of $57 million. This is just a sliver of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package passed in 2009. But slivers of grants add up to, well, trees. And we all know that wasting trees (whether for a grant that doesn't measure up, or to print more of the stuff that passes for currency) isn't environmentally friendly. This is one case where proposing to go green made me blush, especially since the grant wasn't deemed critical or necessary for the hospital's success.

Most would agree that the money could have better been spent in other areas at the hospital, but it was considered "free money" and hard to pass up. Makes you wonder how many of the other 14 projects really didn't make sense and could have been spent better elsewhere.

Voters insist that the federal government live within its means. But Washington will need some help at the local level. People need to speak up and say when something doesn't make sense and perhaps in some cases send the check back. That's why I voted against the proposal. When the demand for "free money" dries up, then we take the first step to restore fiscal sanity. Until then, ill-considered green projects may prove a snare to our nation's fiscal health.

Richard Nelson is a Trigg County magistrate and lives near the Roaring Springs community with his wife and children. The views expressed in this commentary are the opinion of the commentator and don't necessarily reflect the views of WKMS.