City flips switch on green power

Methane from a landfill provides Columbia with renewable energy.
Friday, February 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:31 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

When Columbians flip on the light switch, brew their morning coffee or turn on their televisions, a small portion of the electricity powering those devices now comes from a renewable-energy source.

Columbia began receiving electricity generated by burning landfill gas, or methane, and turning it into electricity on Tuesday. Three megawatts of renewable electricity — approximately 1 percent of the city’s electric needs — flow from electric turbines at the Milam landfill in East St. Louis, Ill., to Columbia homes and businesses.

Purchasing the green power puts Columbia halfway to the first goal of a renewable-energy ordinance voters approved last November. The ordinance requires the city to receive 2 percent of its power from renewable sources by Dec. 31, 2007, and to increase the purchase of renewable energy every five years up to 15 percent in 2022 — without having to raise electricity rates 3 percent more than the cost of traditional energy sources.

Columbia Water and Light Director Dan Dasho said the current purchase would have no effect on utility rates. A report prepared last fall by the Water and Light Advisory Board predicted that nearly 5 percent of the city’s power could be purchased from renewable sources without a rate increase.

“It’s going to teach us a lot about (renewable energy’s) viability,” Dasho said of the agreement, which the city negotiated with the Missouri Public Utility Alliance. This organization has the purchase rights to the Milam methane.

Dasho said Columbia is also pursuing the purchase of wind power from locales such as Maryville, and the city hasn’t ruled out tapping the methane in its own landfill to generate up to 1 percent of the power supply.

However, the Public Works Department is still waiting on a report from Aquaterra Environmental Solutions, Inc., to determine the best use for Columbia’s landfill gas, which could be used at the landfill for electricity and heat, piped to a local industry to burn as boiler fuel or be put on the electric grid for the city.

Regardless of where the electricity comes from, Columbians might see a change in their electricity rates after the city comes under the umbrella of the Midwest Independent System Operator on April 1. This organization polices the purchase and distribution of energy among different areas within the upper Midwest and promotes the reliability of the grid, said John Coffman, a utility consumer advocate and member of Columbians for Clean Energy. Thisgroup proposed the Columbia renewable-energy ordinance.

Dasho said the city wanted to move forward with the renewable-energy purchases at this time in order to diversify its energy portfolio and because getting power from the independent operator could complicate renewable-energy purchases in the future.

Although he believes there are several problems with the independent operator, Coffman said he is optimistic about the chance to purchase renewable energy from farther locales, such as Minnesota, which generates a significant amount of wind power.

Coffman also said that, as most states under the independent operator require renewable-energy purchases either in certain cities or statewide, technological improvements should continue to lower the price of renewable-energy sources.

“If we can do it for a small cost, it just makes sense,” Dasho said.

He said he could not predict the impact that the system operator’s standards would have on electricity rates or the availability of renewable-energy purchases, but the city is working on those estimates.

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