Ordinarily, a projection that Harford County government is projected to save nearly $1 million in energy costs thanks to the building of a new solar electric farm in Perryman might not be cause for major celebration.
After all, the actual savings could end up being far less, anywhere from a low $142,000 to a high of $989,000 over a span of 20 years.
That translates to an average annual savings of $7,100 a year to $49,450. On the low end, it's enough to put a dent in college tuition for a single student. On the high end, it is enough to pay someone a decent salary for a year.
From the perspective of a county government with an annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it's hardly a windfall.
Still, it is a big deal because even at the low end, the expectation is to be paying consistently less for electricity over the span of two decades. And, the county will also reap the benefit of more tax revenue from this and other new generating facilities planned in Perryman under the direction of Exelon and its affiliates, already collectively its largest taxpayer.
The energy savings estimates from the solar far should be reliable, too, because the sunlight that generates the electricity will not be going up and down in price. And, it can be expected the technology involved in turning sunlight into electricity will, at worst, hold steady and is very likely to become cheaper as it becomes more efficient.
By contrast, other fuels for generating electricity have been a good deal more volatile. About 10 years ago, there was a substantial spike in the price of natural gas. Since then, that commodity's price has dropped substantially thanks to the shale gas boom in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere.
Oil has been all over the map. Two decades ago, gasoline – an indicator of oil prices – was about $1.15 a gallon. Two years ago, it was a bargain at $3.50 a gallon. These days it's down to $2.40 a gallon, all driven by the price of oil. Predicting what oil will cost two decades from now is a fool's errand, but it's a reasonable bet it'll cost more than it does now.
So, if sunlight remains free and the cost of photovoltaic cells holds steady, the price of electricity will also hold steady, at least for purposes of the project anticipated to save Harford County money.
That project involves the building, for profit, of what is billed as one of the largest, if not the largest, solar farm in the state on a property in Perryman near the county's main sewage treatment plant, which will use of a portion of the electricity produced by the solar facility, purchased by the county at a contract rate.
As the county's deputy director of the water and sewer division of public works Joel Caudill put it: "We like this project because the sun will actually be contributing to help us clean the [Chesapeake] Bay."
It's a small start, and the symbolism of using clean solar power to clean water that's being discharged into the bay certainly is prescient, and the overall ramifications are very large.
If sunlight can replace coal, oil or even the newly bargain-priced natural gas, the prospects for clean, cheap energy for generations to come bode well for not only government finance but also the advance of civilization as a whole.