City preparing to step up its use of solar energy

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | 8:18 p.m. CDT; updated 10:06 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 20, 2014

COLUMBIA – The city's solar electric portfolio is about to get a big boost.

By the end of this year, the city hopes to add solar panels at its pumping station on West Ash Street that would increase the city’s solar production of electricity by as much as 55 percent.

The $600,000 project will supplement existing solar panels on the grounds of the pump station immediately north of Shelter Gardens.

The new panels would fill the remaining space at the site and produce 250 to 300 megawatt-hours of electricity each year — enough to power 30 average Columbia homes for a year.

The plan demonstrates the city’s increasing commitment to alternative energy sources, said Tom O’Connor, a member of the city's Water and Light Advisory Board.

"I think local, renewable, utility-owned energy is going to be a cornerstone of our energy plan," O'Connor said.

Based on data from the 2014 Columbia Water and Light Renewable Energy Report, solar made up .05 percent, or 544 megawatt-hours, of the city’s total electric production in 2013.

Dow Chemical previously purchased and installed panels at the West Ash pump station as part of an experimental trial at no cost to the city. The two existing panel systems have a combined production capacity of 11.7 kilowatts.

Unlike the panels purchased by Dow and others at the railroad facility, Quaker Oats, Bright City Lights and COLT, or the Columbia Terminal, the new panels would be purchased and installed by the city instead of businesses. The city would produce the energy and sell it to consumers.

"They’re going to be integrated into our overall energy portfolio," Assistant Director of Water and Light Ryan Williams said. "Every customer gets a little piece."

This approach is in contrast to the Solar One program, in which Columbia Water and Light purchases solar energy from businesses. Customers then subsidize the program so that everyone can benefit, Williams said.

O'Connor said the purchase of the new panels would be a wise addition to the city's energy portfolio.

"It’s an investment with a payback," O'Connor said. "People tend to think it's more expensive than it really is. It's not a stretch for a utility company to invest in it these days."

O'Connor said one reason solar panels are a good investment is their longevity. Panels generally have a factory warranty of 25 years and are guaranteed not to lose more than 1 percent of their power output each year, he said.

With a realistic power output reduction of less than half a percent per year, the panels could theoretically keep producing electricity for hundreds of years. In practice, a productive lifespan of 25 to 40 years should be expected, he said.

The project was expected to go before the Columbia City Council for approval in September, Williams said. Bids to install the panels have been narrowed, he said, and a decision will be made once the council acts.

Construction should be complete by the end of the year.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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