Group Proposes Renewable Energy Plan in Columbia

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COLUMBIA - A group of Columbia activists is asking the city council to fund an alternative energy proposal called the "Renewable Energy Plan For All."

The director of People's Visioning said the proposal would help make solar energy incentives offered by the city more affordable for certain groups such as "low-income, special needs, disabled and elderly customers."

Monta Welch, who wrote the plan, said the funding these groups receive would allow them to take advantage of a national program to help make homes more energy efficient. 

Welch said once a customer's house is made energy efficient, their utility bill decreases anywhere from 20 to 30 percent. 

If the funding is approved, Welch said, the city would work with one or more local credit unions to arrange a "low interest lending service" to finance the necessary amount of solar renewable energy on houses. 

Welch said the credit union would have solar panels installed on qualified homes. To cover the cost, she said, customers would continue to pay the power company monthly for electrical use, and the power company would, in turn, compensate the credit union for the cost of the panels, until they are paid off. 

The group's statement to the council said customers would eventually have no electric bill, or almost none. 

The plan said, at that point, customers would qualify to do something called net metering. Welch said that would allow customers to "sell back" unused energy to the utility company. 

"This will connect this energy that they are creating off of solar panels and that it gets fed back into utility," Welch said. "And the utility buys this energy from their local utility customers rather than buying it from out of state, generally speaking."

Columbia resident Eugene Elkin lives in what he said is a fairly energy efficient mobile home. It includes one solar panel, which he installed when he moved in. The panel generates enough energy to power a fan that sucks the heat out of his home, in addition to powering either a small TV or radio. 

Elkin, who is a member of People's Visioning, said he just recently had someone educate him about how much renewable energy it would take to power his home. He said he believes the group's proposal would help many residents. 

He said working collectively, rather than focusing on individuals, "would reap everyone a beneficial result in our end."

City Council member Michael Trapp said that the proposal is worth looking at, but he said any plan would have to include some form of payback for the money the city spends. 

"We might be able to construct a more modest proposal," Trapp said. "But any utility funds we spend would have to be paid back or else people's electric rates would have to go up." The city wants to work its best to keep electric rates as reasonable as possible, he said. 

People's Visioning presented the plan to city council as a public request. The group said it has also shared the proposal with members of the Water and Light Advisory Board. 

Welch said she would like to see a decision made within three months, and for discussions to take place regarding which credit unions are interested in working with the city and the community on the plan. 

"We would like to ask them to take us seriously and look the plan over," Welch said. "We could work with them to modify if need be and make it something that is acceptable and that all parties like."