Solar project near prisons must be clean

September 20, 2011

The sizable solar project near the Maryland state prisons south of Hagerstown all but seems to be a forgone conclusion at this point. If ever skids have been greased, this would appear to be the situation of late. The 100,000-panel, 250-acre project is passing review after review as it strives to be operational in 2012.

On one hand, it might be a good lesson for government that "it can be done." How many private projects have become hopelessly mired in red tape and indifference, as government treats business with all the urgency of estate planning for a teenager?

Second, renewable energy is a fledgling enterprise, with worthy — even critical — goals. We certainly applaud the State of Maryland for its proactive stance on projects that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. And if some procedures have to be bent, this is a mission worth bending them for, just as we provide windbreaks for tender seedlings to give them a little extra help in life.

We would also respond to those who decry the lack of long-term jobs at the site by reminding everyone that jobs here are not the point. Renewable energy is the point. If projects like this succeed on a large scale, the jobs will come in the form of companies no longer tied to the sea-anchor of high energy costs.

However, we do have one concern, and sadly, we come by it honestly. When the government has handed out millions in subsidies over the past two decades, expectations in the Tri-State have not always been met.

Maryland Solar will be eligible for $20 million or more in subsidies, depending on the final cost of the project, which will come in at better than $70 million. OK, but ...

Back in the '90s, some will recall, we were told that First Urban Fiber's pulp recycling plant in Hagerstown would be "the project of a generation." Then came Sino Swearingen in Martinsburg, W.Va., which promised hundreds of jobs for people building private jets. We got similar promises of glory from the Role Models Academy at the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

The commonality among these projects is that they were cumulatively handed millions upon millions of tax dollars and they all proved to be overwhelming disappointments.

Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to see today how we enthusiastically embraced projects that brought only disappointment.

We trust this will not be the case with the local solar project, which to its credit is fronting the majority of the cost. Also, Gov. Martin O'Malley seems to have a genuine enthusiasm for renewables. He also knows he is being watched; a former aide who lobbied for the project was subsequently hired (quite legally) by the solar company itself. Like the energy it generates, this project has to be super clean, or it will have major black-eye potential for the governor.

We think, or we at least hope, that bad taxpayer-funded experiences of the past will prove irrelevant to the local solar project. From all early indications, this project is a clear winner. But if our enthusiasm, at least at this point, seems tempered, it's because we have been burned so badly in the past.

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