Missouri regulator approves major utility’s community solar plan

Community solar, already growing in popularity among Missouri’s rural electric cooperatives, now is coming to the state’s largest investor-owned utility.

Another of the state’s large utilities has indicated it may follow suit.

The Missouri Public Service Commission last week approved Ameren Missouri’s proposal to build one, and possibly two, 500-kilowatt solar arrays. Ameren’s residential and small-business customers will have the option of tapping the community array for as much as half of the energy they use.

“I think it sends a very good signal to industry and consumers that utilities are starting to invest more in renewable energy, and are allowing customers to invest in it also,” said Caleb Arthur, chief executive officer of Missouri Sun Solar and president of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association.

“The utilities now are getting pressure from every direction to become more sustainable over the long term. Pressure from customers, regulators, and EPA changes – all of these things are are writing on the wall so the utility is saying, ‘we better start building out solar.’ ”

Large corporations including WalMart, Target, Cargill and Unilever have expressed their desire to power their Missouri operations with renewable power, Arthur pointed out. And when the solar industry conducted a poll last year, he said, “Seventy percent of Missourians were saying, ‘we want more solar options, and more solar in our state.’”

Missouri derives 80 percent of its power from coal, and less than 1 percent from solar.

Ameren declined to comment on the project. The company has indicated that it will only begin construction on the first 500-kilowatt array after it is fully subscribed. Whether the project tops out at 500 or 1,000 kilowatts will depend on the level of interest among customers.

Subscribers will purchase solar power in blocks of 100 kilowatt hours. Electricity from the solar panels is likely to cost slightly more than Ameren’s going retail rate, according to Andrew Linhares, an attorney for Renew Missouri, which negotiated with Ameren to determine the specifics of the project. Although the rate hasn’t been determined, he estimated that a typical customer getting half of their power from the array might pay an extra $10 or $15 monthly.

Linhares said Ameren initially wanted to charge more, but agreed to lower the price after he and other clean-energy advocates expressed concerns about the pricetag initially proposed by the utility.

The project has been billed as a pilot, one that Linhares hopes “will be a model to other utilities, and a model that can be expanded as solar gets cheaper.” In other states – Minnesota in particular, he said – energy from utility-owned community arrays has turned out to be cheaper than the utility’s going rate, meaning, he said, that the utilities “are paying people to use solar.”

Another Missouri investor-owned utility has indicated it likely will follow suit. As part of a merger deal with Liberty Utilities, the Joplin, Missouri-based Empire District Electric Co. negotiated with Renew Missouri about including some clean-energy measures in the merger agreement. Empire consented to several initiatives involving energy efficiency, combined heat and power, microgrids and renewable energy.

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