As Independence city officials mull the possibilities of renewable energy with the city’s municipal utility, a Saturday morning community forum hosted by Indy Energy discussed issues regarding the City Council’s resolution in July on renewable energy and utility rates.

Economist Geoff Marke from the Missouri Office of Public Counsel, WindSoHy CEO Joe Spease and Paul Snider, vice president of policy and government affairs for Brightery, were the featured presenters at the forum, the third hosted by Indy Energy, which brought in a crowd easily more than 50, including several local politicians, to the North Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library. Jonathan Zerr, a lawyer in Independence, moderated the forum.

Marke’s presentation showed how as of 2012 Missouri is a net energy importer – accounting for 2.2 percent of U.S. electricity consumption from 1.9 percent of the nation’s population – and is the seventh-highest dirty energy state based on pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.

“We’re not particularly efficient with how we use our energy … but a lot can change,” Marke said, adding that energy efficiency is becoming a booming industry.

Marke listed the four building blocks for the best system of emission reductions as: more efficient coal plants, switch to natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency. With improving coal plants, he said, “We’ve done about as much as we can.”

With regards to 111(D) – the state-based program for existing power sources designed to fit EPA guidelines from the Clean Air Act – Marke said that participating rate payers should expect to see higher rates but lower bills in the future, due to reduced energy consumption and reduced wholesale market costs.

Spease, whose company is based in Overland Park, Kansas, spoke of how technology is making wind energy a cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels. He touted a process called compressed air energy storage, where wind energy is created at night, when there’s little demand, stored in underground geometric formations, and then employed with turbines to produce electricity.

“It would be the biggest boost to the economy since the computer revolution because things have to be manufactured in the United States,” he said. “It would lower prices if we do it right.

“Wind power is the cheapest kind of electricity on the market,” Spease said, noting that power purchase agreements are in place from sources in the “wind corridor” stretching from North Dakota south to Texas. These sources just need buyers – a load to absorb the ample supply on the power grid.

“We have the technology that solves the reliability issue,” he said. “The trend is the cost going down, down, down in terms of wind.

Snider, whose Kansas City-based company is involved in rooftop solar power systems, said one thing that makes solar energy work is net metering, where excess created power is sent out to the power grid and customers are credited. He notes that 43 states have adapted net metering policies, including the one Missouri adopted in 2007, which has limits for the size of the producing system (100 kW) and how much a utility has to accept.

Snider said there are plenty of factors driving or discouraging solar energy plans, including cost, policies, incentives, mandates, utility rates, homeowners associations/zoning (Snider’s own HOA doesn’t allow them), and roof structures/trees/building heights. Also, his presentation showed how the U.S. workforce involved in solar energy has more than tripled (to 140,000) from 2009 to 2013.

“There is some investment for utilities, so generally rates will go up,” he said. “While there is a cost, the drive is to save in the long run.

“There is huge potential in rooftop solar, but there’s also a lot of limitations.”

Spease himself said that solar is by far the superior (renewable) option for homes.

Marke and Snider acknowledged the issue of split incentives in a city such as Independence, which has a large number of renters as opposed to homeowners. Many times, landlords don’t feel the incentives of energy efficiency because they’re not the ones ultimately footing the bill.

“Generally speaking, municipals serve as a great place as labs,” Marke said of coming up with ideas.

“Folks have been trying to crack that nut for years,” Snider added. “There’s a lot of things a city can do (code-wise).”

Marke said it might benefit Independence, with its municipal utility, to consider community-based solar energy as opposed to a program that encourages individual panel setups. He also acknowledged the great potential of wind energy.

“I want to him to be right,” he said referring to Spease. “But one of the issues is reliability. When you lose power on a grid, that chews up millions, billions of dollars.”