Solar energy farms, once considered too expensive to install despite their environmental appeal, soon may sprout in Sugar Creek and Independence.
One would be operated by a private company, the other by a public city utility.
Both would create clean energy in cities that have enduring carbon-based energy legacies.
Independence, which has operated its own electric utility since 1901, long has burned coal at two power plants, which are among Missouri’s oldest coal-burning energy facilities. The city plans to close one plant soon and convert the other to natural gas.
In Sugar Creek, a large oil refinery dominated the community’s life for about 80 years after opening in 1904. Later the closed facility became the site of a costly and long environmental cleanup — and the subject of lawsuits by plaintiffs who claimed pollution contributed to cancer or other health issues.
Today, the idea that a solar energy developer could generate renewable energy on the former refinery site excites Sugar Creek’s mayor, Matt Mallinson.
“It would be a phenomenal reuse of that property,” he said. “Every city should be working prudently towards sustainability. It’s the right thing to do.”
For a few years now, some electric utilities, including Kansas City Power & Light, have offered rebates to encourage customers to install their own solar energy collection systems.
“This is a relatively new trend in Missouri. Utilities are integrating renewables into their portfolios,” said Heidi Schoen of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association.
As large-scale solar farms are becoming more cost effective, more are being built. That includes in Missouri, which ranks 10th nationally in photovoltaic technology use, according to industry figures released this month.
“The dropping costs are making solar more of an option in the Midwest, where it has been slower to take hold,” added Laura Machala, the Mid-America Regional Council’s solar energy coordinator.
A solar farm built by City Utilities of Springfield began generating power last summer and a facility operated by Ameren Missouri near St. Louis came online this month.
Last spring, Lee’s Summit-based MC Power Companies opened a utility-grade solar farm near Butler, Mo., about an hour’s drive south of Kansas City. It is building a similar facility in Macon, Mo., and in January hopes to break ground on another in Trenton, Mo.
“The price structure for solar now is competitive with other sources of generation, and developers like MC Power are finding ways to streamline those costs,” said Loren Williamson, a company executive.
Last month, Independence officials invited energy developers to submit solar farm proposals. The response has been beyond expectations, said Robert Heacock, Independence’s city manager.
“We’ve heard from developers from across the country,” he said.
The city’s utility, Independence Power & Light, began buying wind-generated power from a turbine facility near Salina, Kan,. in 2008. That power today generates about 5 percent of the electricity offered to the Independence utility’s customers.
Over the summer, the Independence City Council approved a resolution stating that Independence Power & Light, by 2018, would generate 10 percent of its energy with non-carbon-based sources, unlike coal or natural gas. The utility still contracts for power from Kansas City Power & Light’s Iatan 2 plant, as well as a facility in Nebraska, both of which are powered by coal. Still other energy comes from a natural gas facility in Pleasant Hill.
An Independence solar farm, meanwhile, is only part of the city’s recent renewable energy initiatives.
This fall the city authorized a contract with Burns & McDonnell to help renovate a vacated office building just east of the recently demolished former Medical Center of Independence. The company will consider the use of ground-source heat pumps and rooftop solar installations in hope of obtaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
Such efforts not only advance energy efficiency, they also represent a sacred obligation, according to the Community of Christ, the international church with headquarters in Independence.
Last month, three church officials signed a letter in support of the city’s renewable energy efforts.
“All of us have been entrusted to be responsible stewards of God’s sacred creation,” the letter read.
The church representatives endorsed four specific actions, one of which was to stop burning coal at Independence Power & Light’s Missouri City and Blue Valley power plants.
That’s already on the Independence agenda.
The Missouri City plant is expected to shut down by January 2016, said Leon Daggett, director of Independence Power & Light. Meanwhile, the utility’s Blue Valley plant will transition from coal to natural gas about the same time, depending upon the expiration of coal contracts and the price fluctuations of natural gas.
“At Blue Valley, all we have to do is flip a switch,” Daggett said.
The Independence solar farm, if built, would have a capacity of about 6 megawatts, Daggett said.
Sugar Creek officials began considering a solar farm in 2011. They imagined photovoltaic panels arrayed in and around the business park they began to develop on the former oil refinery site about 10 years ago.
Today, city officials have an agreement with a solar developer company that they will not identify. The company still needs to find customers to purchase the power the farm would generate. But once that happens, Mallinson said, the facility could be built and activated in 12 to 18 months.
A 2012 Black & Veatch study estimated that the Sugar Creek farm could have a capacity of 10 megawatts and perhaps more.
For the sake of comparison, the Butler solar farm, with more than 10,000 solar panels installed across more than 12 acres, has a capacity of 3 megawatts. That means that at full capacity, the facility has the power to offset — or serve — 300 average-size homes in Butler “at that point in time,” said Williamson of MC Power Companies.
“That means that as the sun comes up, the amount of power being used will ramp up accordingly,” he said.
Sugar Creek, meanwhile, shares a corporate boundary with Independence. The Black & Veatch study identified six possible power purchase customers, with Independence Power & Light being one of two western Missouri municipal utilities mentioned.
“I certainly hope we can work something out with our neighboring community to purchase this electricity,” Mallinson said. “It makes sense.”
But it’s not that simple, said Daggett.
The Independence solar farm proposal calls for a utility-scale facility to be built on property owned by Independence Power & Light. Sugar Creek residents purchase electricity from Kansas City Power & Light.
So even though Sugar Creek is just across the road from Independence, that doesn’t mean power transmission costs would be significantly lower, Daggett said.
“We would have to build our own line or pay KCP&L to deliver it,” he said.
“That would add to the charges, and we have no idea what those numbers are.”