GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia no longer a renewable energy leader

Thursday, December 6, 2012 | 5:29 p.m. CST; updated 5:37 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 6, 2012

There was a time when Columbia was a leader in the increasingly important push to switch from generating electricity by burning fossil fuels to using renewable sources of energy. That time was November 2004, when we adopted a renewable energy standard that was the first in the nation to be approved by vote of the people.

The standard called for us to be using renewable sources for at least 5 percent of our electricity by the end of this month and a whopping 15 percent by 2022. The good news is that we're well ahead of schedule, with about 8 percent of our power now coming from wind, methane landfill gas, burning waste wood and solar.

The bad news is that we’re not a leader anymore. In fact, voters statewide set a standard in 2008 calling for investor-owned utilities to reach the 15 percent level by 2021. The real pioneer these days seems to be Oak Park, Ill., which signed a contract last year that calls for 100 percent of the town’s electricity to come from renewable sources. Cincinnati is headed in that direction, too. Vancouver, Canada, is already at 90 percent.

I know all that – and now you do, too – thanks to Monta Welch. Ms. Welch is a self-described "activist at heart" who founded and leads the Columbia Climate Change Coalition and a fledgling movement called the "People's Visioning" project. I met her at Monday’s City Council meeting, where she crammed a 10-minute talk into the five minutes Mayor Bob McDavid allowed.

She talked faster than I could listen, so I called her to get a copy of her presentation. That led to the learning I've just shared. As an activist, though, she isn't just interested in informing. She wants real action.

She told the council that the public is ahead of our elected leaders, and she offered a proposal even she regards as "very remarkable."

"It was the forward-thinking, well-educated voters who wisely passed our RES mandate," she reminded. "They come to you again to move forward, work together, acknowledge, consider and quickly respond to the present circumstances on the ground with climate change. We ask you to quickly raise Columbia's RES to 80 percent by 2015 to signal and help spur real climate change solutions through efficiency, conservation and renewables."

Isn't that awfully ambitious, I asked her Wednesday. That's when she characterized her idea as "very remarkable." But she quickly added, "That's what the situation requires."

The situation, of course, is that the effects of climate change, largely caused by humans, are unfolding even faster than scientists expected. The Arctic has less sea ice, the Greenland glaciers are melting faster, the sea level is rising more quickly, temperatures are setting records, weather is becoming more extreme. At the UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, the experts are cautioning that unless something drastic is done quickly, the changes will be irreversible and very likely catastrophic.

Ms. Welch and the People’s Visioning project want to do something drastic at the local level, by promoting a combination of renewable resources, green jobs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. (The project’s next meeting, in case you’re interested, is at 7 p.m. Monday in the Friends Room of the Columbia Public Library. Everyone’s welcome.)

The city staff proposal to build a fueling station for compressed natural gas-powered vehicles, which proponents see as a step in the right direction, is actually "stupid," Ms. Welch believes, because the gas itself is produced by environmentally destructive processes.

As the timer signaled that her five minutes were up Monday, she asked the council to meet with the People's Visioning group to discuss a way forward.

Mayor McDavid thanked her and moved immediately to the next order of business. That was the issuance of $46 million in new bonds for the city’s mainly coal-powered electric utility.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Mark Foecking December 7, 2012 | 6:52 a.m.

I think we should take solace in the fact we are ahead of our RES, no matter what other communities call for. It's one thing to call for 80 or 100% renewable energy by X date, and it's totally another thing to do it, especially without raising electric rates.

Our RES has an "out", that if use of a generating source will raise electric rates by more than 3%, then it does not have to be used. I suspect there is a similar clause in Oak Park's RES. We will find this will slow implementation of any RES, especially if federal subsidies (that make things like FreePower's panels on the COLT terminal possible) are reduced or eliminated.


(Report Comment)
frank christian December 7, 2012 | 7:53 a.m.

Seemingly, "cost" or "expense" are words never to be mentioned by those advertising the quest for "RES".

Perhaps Mr. Kennedy could investigate this seeming reality. Or, would he just tell us that the lurking danger is too great and suggest that more billions must be sent to the U.N.?

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders December 7, 2012 | 3:40 p.m.

@frank, these are the same people who turn their lights off for an hour once a year, in order to waste electricity while pretending to save it.

Actually understanding electrical production and the grid it is distributed on? Not a requirement. Nope, the only thing they need is the energy to flap their jaws supported by the BELIEF that they are "doing good."

Good intentions, paving the way to Hell for time immemorial.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 7, 2012 | 3:44 p.m.

Frank, the U. N. isn't a player in this (or much of anything affecting us).

Cost *is* something that the city considers when evaluating any energy plan. That was the reason for my post. I was simply saying that it was unlikely that an ambitious RES could be met due to cost.


(Report Comment)

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