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League of Women Voters to hold renewable energy forum

Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA – In October 2009, 4.1 percent of the city’s energy came from renewable sources, according to figures provided by Columbia Water and Light. The Columbia-Boone County chapter of the League of Women Voters is trying to increase that percentage.

The league will hold a public forum Tuesday to discuss green power alternatives for the city. The Columbia Public Library and the Osage Group of Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club are also hosting.

Dick Parker, a member of the league’s energy matters committee and a retired biologist, has developed a strategy for Columbia that he said would allow for 80 percent carbon-free electricity by the year 2020.

Parker said that in order to make this plan a reality, significant changes would have to be made to what types of power the city produces. Under his proposal, 51.9 percent of Columbia's energy would come from biomass.

Biomass is biological material derived from living or recently living organisms. Wood chips, corncobs, grass and fast-growing trees are just some of the materials that can be transformed into green energy. Because biomass can be created from a wide variety of materials, it is as accessible as other energy sources such as coal.

Forestry Extension Specialist Hank Stelzer will also be speaking Tuesday on biomass as a renewable energy source.

Both Columbia and MU have been using biomass energy in small amounts in recent years. Connie Kacprowicz, utility services specialist for Columbia Water and Light, explained that the city has been burning waste wood since April 2008. While biomass makes up a very small percentage of Columbia’s overall electric portfolio, the city plans to continue working with the renewable energy source.

In order to increase biomass use, Parker’s plan calls for three of the city’s generators at the Municipal Power Plant on Business Loop 70 to be converted to biomass fuel.

“The university is a lot more forward-looking,” Parker said. “I suspect it has a lot to do with a few individuals within the university.”

According to Parker, Burns & McDonnell, an engineering firm based in Kansas City, suggested investigating the possibility of converting these generators in Columbia’s 2008 Integrated Resources Plan Report. Parker said that the consultants suggested the cost of operating 100 percent biomass boilers would not significantly differ from what it costs to run the coal and natural gas boilers the city has now. He said their predictions show that the costs associated with this conversion would be less than what it will cost to pay for carbon-based energy after 2015.

Biomass will be a main point of emphasis at Tuesday’s forum, but it is not the only alternative energy source being discussed. Jay Hasheider of Columbia Water and Light will discuss the use of solar power, and Charles Pappas from Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources will speak on wind energy.

In Parker’s proposal, 20.1 percent of the city's electricity would come from wind power. Kacprowicz said Columbia began receiving wind power in September 2007 from Missouri’s first commercial wind farm, Bluegrass Ridge, in Gentry County. She said that in October 2009, 1.5 percent of the city’s energy portfolio consisted of wind energy.

According to Parker, Columbia uses less than 0.02 megawatts of solar power. He said the prices for solar photovoltaic panels are dropping, which makes solar power more affordable.

However, using energy numbers from fiscal 2005 for his analysis, Parker found that the energy peak in any given day was usually close to sunset, meaning that solar power couldn’t be used during the busiest times of the day. Last year’s numbers showed that wind energy was not often available during peak hours, either.

Kacprowicz said that wind energy is a highly variable source that cannot always be controlled. She stressed the importance of having a combination of renewable sources, saying that sun and wind working together are much more effective.

The time of year can also greatly affect what renewable energy sources are readily available. The amount of wind energy Columbia received peaked at 4 percent in April 2009 but tended to be lower during the summer months, Kacprowicz said.

Parker acknowledged that major steps must be made to meet the priorities he has set. He said that his plan would require developing a more aggressive energy efficiency program in Columbia.

According to a renewable energy ordinance approved by Columbia voters in 2004, five percent of the city's electric retail sales are required to come from renewable sources by Dec. 31, 2012, and a 5 percent increase will be required every five years after that until 2022. Under the ordinance, consumer rates could not increase more than 3 percent compared to what rates would be if all electricity came from nonrenewable sources.

“We would like to see the city move rapidly to renewable energy,” Parker said.

The forum will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Friends Room at Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway.


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