WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri's renewable energy commitment is still squishy

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | 1:59 p.m. CDT; updated 8:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 22, 2013

For all the time its politicians spend talking about coal, Missouri voters are big fans of renewable energy.

They made that clear back in 2008, when more than 1.7 million of them passed Proposition C with a two-thirds majority. Voters in every one of Missouri’s 114 counties said they wanted the state’s regulated utilities to start investing in more renewable energy. More solar. More wind.

In the city of St. Louis, home to Ameren Missouri, the big dog among regulated utilities, Proposition C passed by a three-to-one margin.

But now Ameren has asked the state Public Service Commission to suspend the one part of Proposition C that is actually working, rebates to encourage homeowners to install solar panels to provide electricity. It’s too popular.

The Post-Dispatch’s Jeffrey Tomich reported Tuesday that with the costs of solar energy dropping, about 1,400 solar photovoltaic systems have been installed in Ameren’s service area.

Ameren paid out about $9 million in solar rebates last year. Already this year, that number has jumped to $13 million, with about $28 million more requests in the pipeline.

In so many ways, this is great news. More solar reduces the need for dirtier energy produced by coal. It increases the efficiency of the electrical grid. It saves everybody money in the long run.

But another provision of Proposition C limits new investments in renewable energy sources if they cause the utility’s rates to rise more than 1 percent a year.

The provision is fair. As Missouri’s utilities ramp up to the requirement that by 2021, 15 percent of their energy portfolio comes from renewable sources, the 1 percent cap protects consumers from rapid rate hikes.

But because Ameren and the other regulated utilities have fought proper implementation of Proposition C from the moment it was passed, nobody really knows how the 1 percent cap is supposed to be figured.

That’s what makes Ameren’s attempt to suspend the solar payments suspicious.

Earlier this year, the group behind Proposition C, Renew Missouri, filed a complaint with the PSC alleging the state’s investor-owned utilities (Ameren, Kansas City Power & Light and Empire) were not complying with the various requirements of Proposition C.

Among the allegations against Ameren were that it failed to file the proper calculations with the PSC estimating what it would cost to reach the yearly renewable energy standard (2 percent in 2011; 5 percent by 2014). That calculation would have let consumers and solar industry companies know what sort of pool of money would be available for the rebates this year.

Ameren didn’t file the calculations. Why? “It’s an academic calculation now because we’re not up against the 1 percent limit,” one of its executives said at the time.

But now it’s costing Ameren real money, so Ameren no longer thinks it’s academic.

There is some hope among solar advocates that the Ameren filing might actually end up being a good thing. If Ameren and the PSC and the solar industry can follow the precedent set by KCP&L in a similar dispute, some clarity can be brought to the 1 percent cap. That would preserve the solar rebate without suspending a business that’s bringing jobs to Missouri.

It’s strange that a company would fight so hard against a good idea embraced by so many Missourians. Not many ideas in Missouri get 66 percent of the vote. It’s been five years since Missourians demanded home-grown renewable energy. It’s time they got it with a little more cooperation.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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Mark Foecking October 22, 2013 | 6:43 p.m.

"More solar reduces the need for dirtier energy produced by coal. It increases the efficiency of the electrical grid."

Grid tie solar actually does neither. Solar, because of its intermittent nature, displaces generating resources that can quickly follow variations. In Missouri these are natural gas combustion turbines and a small amount of hydro. Coal plants run flat out most of the time (so-called "baseline" generation) and are not affected by solar or wind.

Solar, in large amounts, (which we aren't even close to yet) actually decreases the efficiency of the generators that provide backup. If solar (or especially wind) is supplying a large amount of the load on the grid, fast responding generators must still be kept ready to fill in any gaps in supply. Hydro excels in this, but with natural gas, turbines must be kept hot and ready even if they do not need to produce power. This is inefficient, and the inefficiency grows with greater solar penetration.

Energy storage is the key to making wind and solar work on a large scale. This is an additional, quite significant cost that utilities will be reluctant to invest in.

Go off-grid if you want to install solar. It's the only fair way to do it.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 23, 2013 | 9:36 p.m.

Mark: As usual, well and sustinctly put. A serious limitation with electrical energy, regardless of mode of generation, is that it IS DIFICULT TO STORE. We can store fuels, and burn them (combustion) as required, but once electricity has been generated we need to use it mostly in real time.

As you suggest, fossil fuel fired generation plants are designed, when run, to run pretty much "flat out."

This is another example of dealing with physical realities versus wishes. One can wish for all sorts of things.

(Report Comment)

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