MAPLEWOOD — Missouri's solar energy industry rallied Monday to resurrect a popular rebate program created by a 2008 renewable-energy ballot initiative that was curtailed when the state's largest utilities said they had to cease participation to avoid rate increases capped by the voter-approved law.
The Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association said its members will have to lay off thousands of workers if state lawmakers or the Missouri Public Service Commission doesn't fix an incentive program that provided up to $50,000 in rebates to customers who installed solar rooftop panels. Lawmakers are now in their final week of the annual legislative session.
Association officials made the plea during a news conference with solar company owners at Schlafly Bottleworks, a Maplewood brewery that installed a solar roof several years ago to take advantage of the $2-a-watt rebate program.
"In the midst of a recession, solar was one of the best and most exciting economic drivers in the state," association president Rick Hunter said. "Now these jobs and growth are on the brink of being lost."
After the passage of Proposition C six years ago, industry leaders, Kansas City Power and Light and Ameren Missouri had hoped the rebate program would last until at least 2015. But by October 2013, Ameren had asked the state Public Service Commission for an early halt because the program was more popular than expected and it couldn't afford to pass along the rebates without a sizeable rate increase.
The law requires investor-owned utilities to derive 5 percent of their electric generation from renewable resources this year — a commitment set to increase to 15 percent by 2021. However, rate increases derived from that measure must be capped at 1 percent.
Ameren vice president Warren Wood said the utility committed to nearly $92 million in solar rebates while paying out almost half of that amount.
"There was enormous demand for the rebates," he said. "We saw applications skyrocket."
Hunter, whose St. Louis County company Microgrid Solar expects to reduce its 75-person workforce by as much as half should the rebates not be revived, said his group is working with several lawmakers in Jefferson City to amend legal language related to the incentive program.
But Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, called a last-minute legislative remedy an uphill fight as lawmakers focus on more pressing concerns.
"I'm not saying we're going to give up these last five days," he said. "But it doesn't look good."
Hunter and other solar-business owners said they reluctantly agreed to support Ameren's request to the state Public Service Commission to temporarily curtail the program until a fix could be found. Natelle Dietrich, the agency's director of utility operations, said the PSC is considering changes that would phase out the rebate program over the next several years while reducing the subsidy rate.
With the rebate program in flux, Ameren is meeting the minimum requirement to produce renewable energy in part through credits it has purchased from an Iowa wind farm, based on what Hunter called "a very odd interpretation" by the PSC "that is not used anywhere else in the country."
"We are trading hundreds of millions (in) taxable revenues and thousands of solar jobs in Missouri for wind farms to be built in other states," he said. "That makes no sense."