The city of Independence is pressing ahead with plans to sharply increase its use of renewable energy, possibly beating a key deadline it set for itself by a couple of years. The director of Independence Power and Light would like to see the city have the largest solar farm in the state.

In July, the City Council adopted several goals, including IPL getting at least 10 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2018, and 15 percent by 2021. The council wanted an update by the end of November, and that came in the form of two outside reports on renewable energy potential and a memo by IPL Director Leon Daggett summarizing progress to date.

“It reaffirms that we’re on the right path,” City Manager Robert Heacock said, referring to the reports.

After a news article on the update, companies interested in building a solar energy farm started contacting the city.

“People started calling us from all over the country,” Daggett said.

So the city has extended the deadline to Dec. 23 to submit proposals for a solar farm. IPL has land off Bundschu Road in the northeast part of the city, and Daggett would like to see a facility of about 10 megawatts. That would be the largest in the state. The largest currently is about 6 megawatts, he said.

By rule, IPL has to maintain the capacity to provide more than 300 megawatts of power. That’s at the high end of what’s needed on a hot summer day when usage is highest. By comparison, a chilly day like Wednesday is about a 140 to 150 megawatt day, he said. A 10-megawatt solar farm, in addition to the wind-generated power IPL already buys from a wind farm in Kansas, would make a sizable share of IPL’s load.

Daggett said several companies have asked for information about bidding on a solar project.

“If we get 10 or 12 (proposals), that could be good,” he said.

Heacock said the city could reach the 10 percent goal in 2017 or even 2016.

“If we can deliver on the goal that the council set a little earlier, that’s just icing on the cake,” he said.

IPL also is reviewing a handful of wind-power proposals.

Scott Roberson, the council member who pushed hardest for the energy ordinance in July, said he’s encouraged by the movement on solar and wind.

“I was pleasantly surprised by that,” he said.

Heacock stressed that the City Council hasn’t yet formally taken up the report or questions such as how to pay for these projects.

“We haven’t been down this road before, so it’s kind of new ground,” he said.

However, one of the new reports, by engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, suggested that any such solar farm would be built with private money and IPL would buy the power. A private company, unlike a city, can get government incentives for solar power.

Roger Hershey, with the local group Indy Energy, points out that IPL operates out of what the city calls an enterprise fund, that is, it pays its own way through rates. It’s separate from the city’s general fund, where officials have said repeatedly money is tight. Any public investment in these new projects would likely come out of that enterprise fund and be recovered through rates, the same as with any other energy source.

IndyEnergy has held public forums this year, with alternative-energy advocates as well as IPL officials.

“We wanted to generate a community conversation about electric power, particularly IPL,” Hershey said, noting that organizations such at the Chamber of Commerce and the school district have expressed concerns about power rates. In passing the ordinance in July, the council also ordered a rate study for residential, commercial and industrial customers. That’s due to the council next May.

The council’s passage of the ordinance last summer is highly encouraging, Hershey said, but he added, “There’s, I think, a long way to go.”

 

Old power plant

 

IPL also is working its way through other issues. Its coal-fired plant in Missouri City is seldom used and is scheduled to be closed in early 2016, but officials are still figuring out which options – all costly – to pursue. Even if the plant is left standing, there are questions such as what to do with the ash pond. Tearing it down, which means dealing with asbestos among other things, is more costly. Roberson put the range of costs at $4 million to $21 million.

“We haven’t made that decision yet,” Daggett said.

IPL gets most of its power from plants in Weston, Missouri, and in Nebraska. Missouri City is generally used at times of peak demand.

“We don’t run it very often,” Daggett said. “Last summer, we didn’t run it at all.”

The plant is old, dating to the early 1950s, and Daggett says its 50 years of expected use have long passed. Ideally, he’d like to see someone come along and want the plant for another project, such as burning biomass fuels for power, but he said that seems unlikely.

 

Get the word out

 

The Burns & McDonnell report also had other suggestions for IPL, such as doing more to market programs to help homeowners and businesses with energy efficiency and related issues. Daggett points out that IPL, back around 1990, had the first such program in the metro area but expressed caution.

“We don’t do a good job of marketing. It’s just not our thing,” he said.

IPL does some of that, such taking out ads in The Examiner and sponsoring events at Missouri Mavericks games, but he said there’s always criticism for doing so. Municipal utilities don’t have the same latitude as private utilities such as KCP&L, and officials have “got to be very sensitive” about where every dollar goes, he said.