Columbia unsure if it will expand its solar energy production

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COLUMBIA - The city of Columbia is unsure whether it will invest more money into its solar energy production in the future.

Connie Kacprowicz, a spokesperson for Columbia Water and Light, said solar energy made up less than one percent of the total amount of energy supplied to the city in 2014.

But, she said the city is hoping to advance its solar energy production.

"When you look at solar panels lasting 20 years, sometimes even more, that helps the cost because you're essentially, after you get it paid off, then you're getting free energy. So, it's starting to make more sense, not only for the utility to install solar panels, but residents as well," Kacprowicz said.

There is one problem she said would cause some concern with completely switching to solar energy.

"Even with solar that's producing a lot more in the summer time, which is when our peak is, the peak of electric usage usually happens right when everyone gets home, in between like five and six, around that time," Kacprowicz said. "The peak of solar energy output is a little bit earlier in the afternoon."

She said the city wants to start a program where residents can help the city provide more solar energy.

"We're going to possibly be starting a community solar program where we would actually install the solar panels in a field and then people can buy shares of that," Kacprowicz said.

Local business powered by the sun

One Columbia business has a solar panel system big enough to power the entire building.

Columbia Safety Industrial Supply installed its 140-panel, 35 kilowatt, system in 2013.

Caleb Messer, the vice-president of sales at Columbia Safety, said a few different factors led to the decision to install the system.

"It's kind of two-fold: it was a good opportunity for us to save a little bit of money on utilities, but at the same time a company our size and with a lot of the people that we work with, it's in our best interest to do everything that we can to show that we're an environmentally-friendly company," Messer said.

He said a specific goal was in mind when deciding to install the system.

"Our goal was to be Boone County's first industrial net-zero electricity building. So, we wanted to be able to produce as much or more electricity than we consume," Messer said.

Messer said the company achieved that goal, and it will take approximately six years for the $200,000 system to pay for itself.

Columbia must increase renewable energy by 2018

Right now, the city is generating solar energy at three locations, according to its website. One of them is behind the West Ash Pumping Station in west Columbia.

Kacprowicz said more solar panels are being built to provide an additional 260 kilowatts to its system.

"We bought the solar panels, and we're actually using our own staff to install them," Kacprowicz said. "So, it's kind of a way of learning to make sure we know what's going on and to figure out the exact cost and then see if we can expand from there."

She said with the additional solar power, the city's system is capable of powering 35 homes for an entire year.

By 2018, Columbia must meet a federally-enforced guideline that states that the city must produce a certain amount of energy through a renewable source.

"Columbia Water and Light, by 2018, has to have 15 percent of our electric supply coming from renewable resources," Kacprowicz said. "Whether we do that with solar, wind, other forms of biomass, landfill gas, there will probably be a mixture moving forward. We don't have any set goal as far as solar, but obviously as that cost goes down we're going to be investing in it more."

• See Columbia's 2015 Renewable Energy Report