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COLUMBIA – Columbia is working on an application to be recognized as a member of a national startup program to increase solar energy production. 

SolSmart, the new program, comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and the general goal is to aid in the installation process of solar for qualified cities.

Fourth Ward council member Ian Thomas said going solar is not just option for the community, but a necessity.

“In the next few decades, we have to reduce our global consumption of fossil fuels,” Thomas said. “The environmental impacts, global warming in particular, are going to be very serious even if we were to stop right now.”

To gain admission in the program, SolSmart requires a community pass certain intake criteria which is based, in part, on planning and zoning policies, staffing and training.

City sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe said Columbia is ahead of the curve in renewable energy planning.

“The city of Columbia was the first city in Missouri to adopt a renewable energy portfolio standard that requires a certain amount of our energy distributed is actually from renewable sources,” Buffaloe said.

She said, looking at trends and comparing available solar resource in Columbia with other major cities around the world, Columbia has the potential to grow rapidly.

"We have 44 percent more solar than Berlin, Germany, and, in Berlin, they’re the world leader in solar,” Buffaloe said. “So the fact that we actually have more solar resource than they do, let’s catch up.”

Tom O’Connor, a solar engineer, said upfront costs deter people from installing a system in their homes or business. But, he said, overall installation prices are beginning to fall and starting with smaller solar practices is a possibility.

“Even if you don’t want to cover the roof with solar, you can start with a smaller system of just a few panels,” O’Connor said. “It’s scalable and there are a lot of entry points.”

He said the return on investment could take from five to 20 years. However, the property value boost is considerable for people who do not plan to stay in one location that long, he said.

The city’s SolSmart application is due in early July.