League of Women Voters sparks renewable energy discussion

Wednesday, November 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIAIncreasing renewable energy use in Columbia is possible.

That is the message the Columbia-Boone County chapter of the League of Women Voters tried to send residents at its Green Power Forum on Tuesday night. The league worked to present people with relevant information about renewable energy sources.

The Friends Room at Columbia Public Library was filled with people passionate about renewable and efficient energy. Before the start of the forum, casual discussions could be heard relating to electricity generators, heat and wind turbines.

Four panelists were allotted 10 minutes each to speak about a different form of energy, addressing subjects including how each type has been used in Columbia and what it would take to increase their output.

Hank Stelzer, an MU Extension forestry specialist, spoke first about the MU Power Plant’s use of biomass and also addressed what types of materials can be transformed into energy. Stelzer explained that biomass is made commonly from switch grass, hay crops, tree chips and urban waste, such as storm debris.

He said by the end of the summer or early fall of 2012, the power plant will have a generator that burns biomass exclusively.

Charles Pappas, of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, discussed the pros and cons of wind energy, saying it is free and clean but also variable — it doesn't blow with the same strength every day or at the same times of day.

Pappas said wind variability can be managed by increasing the number of wind turbines in an area but creating reliable wind energy is expensive. Pappas projected that a single wind turbine can cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Due to the struggling economy, however, the price of turbines has averaged most recently at $1.6 million.

Additional costs of wind energy include its transmission.

“Wind energy tends to be where no one is living,” Pappas said. “So, you have to transport it where the people are.”

Jay Hasheider, energy services supervisor at Columbia Water and Light, told Tuesday’s crowd that the city's solar work began in 2007 with a small-scale demonstration at the Columbia Area Career Center.

He also addressed what Water and Light is doing to encourage solar energy use, including $400 or $800 rebates to individuals for installing solar water heating in their homes and $500 rebates for each kilowatt of power up to 10 kilowatts for installing solar electric systems.

Hasheider also discussed Columbia’s Solar One program, which challenges the city to get 1 percent of its power from the sun by 2023. The program started in June 2008.

Customers who are interested in promoting solar energy can pay an additional $4 a month, which the city uses to pay for solar panels placed around the community. It is the hope that with this program, local businesses will become solar producers by constructing buildings with solar panels and selling their energy to the utility company in 10-year contracts.

“The price of solar is coming down and all the predictions say that will continue in the future,” Hasheider said.

Dick Parker, a member of the league's energy matters committee and a retired biologist, discussed his plan for Columbia, which would greatly increase the city’s use of renewable energy and allow for 80 percent carbon-free electricity by 2020. His strategy calls for 51.9 percent of Columbia’s energy to come from biomass, 20.1 percent from wind and 3.4 percent from solar power.

According a renewable energy ordinance put in place on Nov. 2, 2004, and approved by 77 percent of voters, Columbia must generate 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2012. Furthermore, the city must generate another 5 percent of its electricity from renewable energy every five years until the year 2022.

“We can do it,” Parker said. “We can move to renewable energy; it is basically an issue of citizens’ will.”

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