COLUMBIA — The promise of biomass weighed against the cost of alternative energy sources was the key theme of the day when U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., visited the Columbia Municipal Power Plant on Monday.
McCaskill met with representatives from MU, MFA Oil, the Columbia Water and Light Department, the Missouri Energy Initiative, Missouri University of Science and Technology, the Missouri Public Utility Alliance and Boone Electric Cooperative.
The delegates discussed plans to invest in renewable energy sources and create jobs in the energy sector. The meeting was part of McCaskill’s Hometown Energy Tour, during which she has spent several days traveling around the state gathering official opinions. McCaskill is also seeking re-election to the Senate in November.
“The main focus of her tour this time around has been listening,” McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said.
Speakers explained the steps their institutions or companies are taking and the progress they're making in research, but their excitement about boosting efficiency and promoting alternative energy sources was balanced against concerns about cost.
Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen said that because it takes time and money to make changes, it's important when talking about new energy strategies to ask: "What benefit does it actually bring?"
Johnsen noted that the Columbia Municipal Power Plant does mix some biomass with coal as an extra source of fuel and that Missouri is a good state for producing biomass. Still, he said, those who would like to see a full-scale conversion to the alternative fuel have to consider the startup costs.
Many of the speakers said biomass is also becoming important in their research and fuel production.
LaBombard said McCaskill recognizes the high cost of switching to alternative energy sources, and therefore she does “not expect to see a full transition to renewable resources in her lifetime.”
Still, LaBombard said, McCaskill is trying to find ways to invest in renewable methods to someday achieve this full transition.
McCaskill said Columbia’s method of using both coal and biomass is a good step toward that goal, partly because Missouri has farmland that is good for producing biomass, such as switchgrass, but not fit for growing food.
Sarah Steelman, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, agrees that biomass mixed with coal is a good option, but she also worries about costs.
"This is not an either-or question between coal or biomass," Steelman said in an email. "I support the development of all domestic energy alternatives to ensure that Missouri families and business have access to low cost, reliable energy. What I don’t support is the practice of propping up certain alternatives such as ethanol through government subsidies that end up costing taxpayers more instead of benefiting them."*
Todd Akin, another Republican candidate, indicates on his website that he also supports the "all of the above" approach described by Steelman. And a third Republican candidate, John Brunner, said on his website that he worries that new energy regulations that McCaskill supports could cause energy bills to rise dramatically.
Neither Akin nor Brunner were available for comment.