COLUMBIA — Allie Gassmann plans to continue using solar panels on her home for the rest of her life, but she does see a more attractive alternative.

“Unless of course the whole grid becomes solar and wind energy,” she said, “then we won’t need our own rooftop panels anywhere.”

Gassmann and her family installed solar panels on the roof of their Columbia home in 2011. With federal and city rebates, the installation price was around $10,000. Gassmann said that while that's expensive, her main reason for switching to solar — global climate change — outweighed any worries about price.

“Yes, it’s a lot of money up front, but over time you do save a lot,” she said, adding that upkeep of the panels is easy.

The panels reduce carbon emissions by 5.3 tons per year, totaling roughly 158 tons of carbon dioxide over their 30-year lifetime. In the six years since the Gassmanns installed them, the panels have also produced around 32,700 kilowatt hours of power, providing a sizable break in their energy bill.

While more families like the Gassmanns are helping the city fulfill its renewable energy requirements for 2018 and beyond, solar is a nascent industry in Columbia. According to the city’s 2017 Renewable Energy Report, 0.13 percent of its energy last year was solar. In order to meet the required levels, city officials are considering several options, including more wind energy from Kansas, solar community projects and a tweaked net metering process, to promote clean energy use.

The requirements, which come from an ordinance revised by the City Council in 2014, include benchmarks for the city to generate or buy electricity from renewable energy sources at the following levels:

  • 15 percent of total electricity by 2018
  • 25 percent by 2023
  • 30 percent by 2029

For the first three months of 2017, renewable energy made up 18.85 percent of Columbia’s total system. While production is expected to be less efficient over the summer, Columbia Water and Light Assistant Utilities Director Ryan Williams said the city “should be in fairly good shape to be at 15 percent by the end of the year.”

Picking up wind

The largest share of Columbia’s renewable energy comes from wind. The city’s wind use grew from 3.43 percent in 2016 to 15.5 percent in the first three months of 2017, largely due to an additional contract that began this year with the Iowa-based Crystal Lake wind farm.

The two deals with Crystal Lake constitute the largest single source of Columbia's renewable energy at the lowest price, according to previous Missourian reporting.

In addition to the new Crystal Lake farm agreement, the council will consider an agreement to purchase 35 megawatts of wind energy from the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission during its Monday meeting.

Missouri Public Utilities Alliance Vice President Ewell Lawson said the wind energy would come from the Iron Star wind farm near Dodge City, Kansas, beginning in 2021. According to the Wichita Eagle, the wind farm is in advanced development and likely to be built this year.

A bright future for solar

Columbia will likely need to increase its solar energy production to meet benchmarks for 2023 and 2029. Williams said the city is reviewing responses to its request for proposals to increase solar use.

“We’ve had a couple pieces of pie all fall into place over the course of the past year or so,” Williams said.

Columbia’s Solar One program, which started in 2008, sells electricity generated from solar panels at the West Ash pumping station to local residents, but the dropping price of solar energy since then has forced the city to end the program, according to previous Missourian reporting. Williams said the West Ash panels may be converted into a community solar project that residents could use to power their homes.

In 2007, the City Council passed an ordinance that allows customers to enter net metering agreements with Columbia Water and Light. Through these agreements, residents can receive credit from Water and Light for any extra energy produced by their solar panels or other renewable sources. The leftover energy is then used on the citywide system.

Columbia's net metering process has drawn criticism. During an April meeting of the City Council, Columbia resident Wayne Hawks said the cost of net metering deters him from adding panels to homes he's been constructing.

"We're building houses for rent, and they're small houses," Hawks said. "I'm trying to make them as efficient as we can, so we're not gonna have big solar units on the thing."

A new billing system aimed at addressing complaints about net metering will be unrolled in the summer or fall, Williams said.

Zach Wyatt, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industry Association, shares concerns about net metering.

"When they re-evaluate their accounting measure for this, it could show solar being one of the lowest cost-energy productions,” he said.

Wyatt sees tremendous potential for solar in Columbia and throughout Missouri. He said the solar industry produces roughly 3,200 jobs statewide. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Coal Report, Missouri had 15 coal-producing jobs in 2015.

A state of growth

One day soon after Wyatt arrived in Jefferson City as a state representative in 2011, a senator approached him saying solar was “very subsidized.”

“I said: ‘Well, senator, we aren’t subsidized by the state … We do have a national tax credit, but if you want to talk subsidies, let’s talk biofuel subsidies,’” Wyatt recalled.

Wyatt said the interaction illustrates a lack of knowledge about energy policy that he witnessed consistently over his two-year term in the House. He describes his energy industry organization as “the Chamber of Commerce for the Solar Industry” in Missouri. It works with manufacturers, installers, salespeople and state legislators to promote solar growth.

In 2008, voters approved the Missouri Clean Energy Act, which requires that utility companies' energy portfolios be at least 15 percent renewable by 2021. Since then, Wyatt said, no major energy policies have been approved by the state legislature.

Wyatt pointed to House Bill 340, which passed the House in early April, as legislation that would severely damage the solar industry. If it had passed, the bill would have allowed utilities and electric companies to impose a charge on “customer-generators,” including those who own solar panels and other renewable energy sources. The bill died when the session ended on Friday.

Last year, Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880, according to analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Gassmann and Wyatt both noted the dropping price of solar panels, and as Columbia strives to double its renewable energy use in the next 12 years, the proliferation of cheap options could be key in its efforts to preserve the warming planet.

“Solar is the most renewable form of energy that we can have in our state,” Wyatt said, “and it’s just getting cheaper and cheaper.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

  • Summer 2019 reporter and assistant city editor. Reach me by email at tncoulter@mail.missouri.edu or on Twitter at @tomcoulter_

Recommended for you