Columbia Changing Focus for Solar One

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COLUMBIA - Columbia's Solar One program hasn't gained much steam in the past few years, but the city hopes new changes to the program will attract more people. 

Solar One kicked off in Columbia in 2008. The program's main focus is to move away from dirty energies, like coal, and eventually have one percent of the city's power use come from solar energy.

The city generates energy from solar panels installed at Quaker Oats, Bright City Lights and the West Ash Pumping Station. Columbia customers can then pay an extra $3.35 a month to get their energy from the stored solar energy.

Main Squeeze Natural Foods Cafe was one of the first businesses in Columbia to sign up for the program.

"I feel really lucky to live in a community that values the things they do," owner Leigh Lockhart Lockhart said.  "The city says let's make a longterm plan for what we are going to do about energy."

Although many people were excited about the program when it began, the program's numbers have declined over the years.

According to the Renewable Energy Reports released by the city in 2011, Solar One raised $8,602.10. According to the 2014 report,the program raised $8,891 in 2013. The difference between the two years is just $288.90. The small change means fewer people are signing up for the program.

Jay Hasheider, Columbia Energy Services Superintendent, said the reason more people haven't joined the program may be because the city doesn't market the program. He said that's because the program's focus has shifted since the it was first introduced.

The program was built on the premise that solar energy would always be an expensive alternative. However, shortly after the program launched, the price of solar energy decreased.

Solar One was meant to start on a small scale and grow, but the decrease in price of solar energy changed that.

Hasheider said the focus changed from getting a small group of residents to use the service to making solar energy available to everyone.

"What we are hoping to do is make a program that is available to virtually all customers, so they have an interest in solar that is equivalent to an interest say if they put a panel on their roof," Hasheider said.

If the Columbia City Council approves the changes, Columbia Power and Light plans to heavily market the new Solar One. 

Columbia resident J. Scott Christianson does not participate in the Solar One program, but he installed 24 panels onto the roof of his house in October of 2013. 

He said he installed them not only because solar energy is cleaner than coal, but also because they were a good financial investment.

"If you look at the long term these panels are guaranteed for 25 years, if you look at that return over investment for 25 years it was a heck of a lot better then we could get in any CD or bank account today," Christianson said.

Since the installation, he said his utility bills have been almost nothing. When Christianson has an excess of energy, it goes into the city's grid, but if there isn't enough from his panels, the city feeds his system.

In eight to nine years, the panels will have paid for itself.

The city hopes in the future Solar One will be able to reduce customer's energy bills while staying environmentally conscious.