COLUMBIA— Ten years ago, people would have laughed at the idea of Columbia becoming a Midwest-leading community in solar power.
A partnership between the city and a private firm to install solar panels at the city-owned COLT Railroad facility has led to the largest solar site in Missouri with both rooftop and in-ground panels. The rooftop installation is also the largest in the eight contiguous states.
A 2004 citizen-driven referendum, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in November 2014, ignited city government's pursuit of renewable energy. Columbia continues to go beyond the minimum goals of the voter-approved initiative to expand renewable energy and, in the process, has developed from scratch a solid reputation in solar power.
The Solar One program, which began in 2008, is the city's first attempt to encourage business investment in solar projects, according to Columbia Water and Light’s Renewable Energy Report. After the business installs a system, Columbia Water and Light purchases the solar energy through a power purchase agreement.
“It got us on the map as a solar-friendly town,” Columbia Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said.
In 2012, Solar One’s installations at the West Ash Water Pumping Station, Quaker Oats and Bright City Lights produced 46.2 megawatt-hours, which equals the average monthly electric use of 59 Columbia households, according to Water and Light.
Still, significant growth of solar energy didn’t come until 2010, when the City Council approved a lease agreement with Free Power Co., a private company based in Nebraska. Kacprowicz called it a “minimum risk agreement,” with the city responsible only for preparing and providing sites such as the one at the COLT Railroad along with a way to hook into the electric system.
According to the city's most recent Renewable Energy Report, the Free Power agreement produced 241.6 megawatt-hours in 2012 — about the average monthly electric use of 307 Columbia households.
The city has increased the amount of renewable energy in its electricity portfolio from 1 percent in 2007 to 7.94 percent in 2012. These percentages are projected to reach at least 10 percent by 2017 and 15 percent by the end of 2022.
The city has increased its solar capacity from 1 megawatt-hour in 2007 to 271 megawatt-hours in 2012; solar makes up .02 percent of the electricity in Columbia’s portfolio. City officials expect solar to produce up to 1,000 megawatt-hours in 2013 and account for 0.8 percent of the city's electricity.
Customers should bear in mind that solar energy is still at its infant stage in the Midwest, Kaprowicz said. The city of Butler is the only municipality in Missouri other than Columbia that has opted for large solar installations, she said.
In coming years, Columbia Water and Light and Free Power will be working to develop more solar installations at the Columbia Energy Center, West Ash Water Pumping Station, a Creasy Springs Road property, the Wastewater Treatment Plant and landfill buffer area.
“It is not inconceivable regarding the ways things are going that we could double the size of the installations each year,” Jay Hasheider of Water and Light said.
The growth in solar power is largely due to significant improvements of technology and price declines that make solar energy more affordable.
Dan Shifley, president of Dogwood Solar in Columbia, has noticed a lot more interest on solar solutions in 2013.
“The conception of people not being able to afford solar energy is not true anymore,” Shifley said.
In addition, homeowners and for-profit businesses are eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit through 2016.
“Five years ago solar energy cost up to $10,000 per kilowatt, now it is down to as low as $4,000,” Terry Freeman of Water and Light said. “Columbia has been blessed with low utility rates in comparison with the rest of the country.”
“I hope we have reached the hot tipping point in which manufacturers are able to increase the volume and reduce the cost,” Freeman said.