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Our say: Energy park idea must be approached cautiously

With similar projects popping up around the country, Bob Agee's idea of turning Annapolis' waterworks park into a 500-acre facility devoted to the production of renewable energy - by solar, biomass and methane-recovery equipment - sounds less far-fetched than in 2008, when Agee began advocating it.

At least in theory, the project could generate rental income and savings on energy costs, putting the former landfill to good use. So approving $6,000 for a study, as the City Council did last month, isn't unreasonable.

But the city shouldn't proceed unless the idea gets an unequivocal thumbs-up from that study. And it shouldn't proceed if the city is going to assume any management or design responsibilities, or has to open itself up to any risk.

As we reported Sunday, Agree pushed hard for this project in 2009, when he was city administrator. Five companies submitted bids, and negotiations began with the highest-rated bidder - then shifted to the second choice when the first company didn't come up with an escrow deposit the city was requiring.

But the project gradually bogged down, even after the two top bidders - resolving their prior disagreement - offered to become partners. The administration of new Mayor Josh Cohen wasn't as committed to the idea, and the whole thing was starting to seem impractical - especially since solar energy from the park would have cost 12 cents per kilowatt hour, while the city was purchasing electricity for 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

The Cohen administration moved on to other projects - including the leasing of Market House - while Agee left city government in early 2010.

Now there's a new mayor, Mike Pantelides. Agee is back as assistant city manager. Ted Siomporas - a Pantelides family friend, and a former U.S. Department of Energy official who advised on the energy park proposal the last time - is on the city payroll as a contractual employee. Solar energy can be produced much more cheaply. So, unsurprisingly, the energy park is back on the agenda.

But this is an inherently complicated area, affected by both federal policy and the unpredictable fluctuations of energy prices. And between the building of a new water plant and the rebuilding of Hillman garage, the Pantelides administration already has a full plate - not to mention that there seems to be a lot of organizational work still to be done at City Hall.

If all the lights are green and the city can negotiate a deal in which a renter takes all the risks, this might be worth pursuing. But the doleful history of Market House - in which the city government failed for years at the relatively simple business task of setting up a food court in a small historic building - demonstrates that caution must be the order of the day.

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