The city of Independence will look at the feasibility of a solar farm as a supplemental source of electricity, part of an effort by Independence Power & Light to use more renewable energy sources.
“There’s nothing formal laid out yet as far as the time frame” for studying the solar farm idea, Paul Mahlberg, IPL’s deputy director, said Saturday at a forum sponsored by a local group, Indy Energy.
The city is looking for potential sites, which would need to be near IPL facilities. Any final decision on whether to proceed would rest with the City Council, he said.
Others on the IndyEnergy panel said the cost of using the sun to produce electricity is coming down sharply but it still high – double that of wind power – part of the reason the U.S. has lagged other nations in adopting solar power.
“But we are catching up. ... Things are picking up in the U.S.,” said Andy Knott of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal project.
IPL relies overwhelmingly on coal. In 2013, more than 60 percent of its electricity came from two plants – in Nebraska City, Neb., and Kansas City Power & Light’s Iatan 2 plant near Weston.
Another 8.9 percent came from the city’s two coal-fired plants in Missouri City and the Blue Valley on Truman Road. New federal rules are requiring costly upgrades for older plants, so Missouri City is scheduled to close by 2016, and Blue Valley – designed for coal or natural gas – is being switched to gas by 2016, with no capital cost for the conversion, Mahlberg said.
“It’s capable of burning natural gas today,” he said. “We could flip the switch today.”
IPL gets 5 percent of its power from a wind farm, though IPL wants to double its share of renewable sources – wind, solar, biomass – by 2018.
Mahlberg cautioned that solar energy would never take the place of a plant such as Blue Valley.
“I think every source of power has pros and cons,” he said. “From IPL’s perspective, we think a balanced portfolio (of sources) makes sense.”
The Blue Valley plant’s maximum production is 93 megawatts of power. Four to five acres of solar panels are needed to produce one megawatt. For example, the new MCPower Companies solar farm in Butler, Mo., covers 17 acres and will produce 3.2 megawatts, enough for about 1,500 homes, said panelist Brian Barton, who is MCPower’s director of government affairs and public relations.
The speakers also discussed how homeowners and business could take advantage of solar-generated electricity. If a utility customer installs such equipment, that customer can sell excess back to the utility. To date, IPL has eight such customers.
The city has an application and permitting process. A solar system needs to be put in by a certified installer and inspected so IPL can be sure of the safety of electrical systems its workers might have to deal with.
“Again, safety is priority No. 1,” Mahlberg said.
Other cities are moving ahead with solar power.
Barton said his company’s solar farm will supply 10 percent of Butler’s needs.
“To date, we’ve generated power for about 25 homes. By the end of the year, 1,500 homes,” he said.
One advantage, he said, is that power is generated close to where it’s used, unlike the traditional system under which electricity is often transmitted hundreds of miles from its point of generation to the outlet in your house.
“That is the beauty of the solar panels,” Barton said.
Officials also kicked around the idea of community solar farms, where homeowners and business would buy a share of the project.
“We’re just starting to look at that kind of concept and how it might work in Independence,” Mahlberg said.
Officials also stressed the value of energy conservation.
“It really does make sense to look at everything in your building, everything in your home,” Knott said.
IPL has programs, including rebates for energy efficient air conditioners, heat pumps and heat pump water heaters. Also, there’s the Home Energy Loan Program, or HELP, for improvements in energy efficiency. Go to independencehelp.org, for more information.