It will be at a different site than originally planned, but the Independence Power and Light community solar farm still is on tap for construction in the coming months.
The new site currently is farmland off Bundschu Road in rural eastern Independence, just across the street from Indian Trails Elementary School near Missouri 7, with a groundbreaking scheduled for the last week of September.
The solar farm had been slated for land above the Space Center caves east of M-291. But MC Power from Lee's Summit, which will construct the farm and sell the solar power to IPL, couldn't reach a desirable lease agreement with the Space Center owners.
The new 40-acre site, more than twice as large as the previous site, is land owned by the Community of Christ. While MC Power has produced several solar farms in Missouri, including in Butler, Trenton, Rolla and Waynesville, the Independence project was enticing due to proximity.
“We had a couple sites available at first,” said Loren Williamson, vice president of project development for MC Power. “This is exciting because it's in our backyard. We've been doing other sites around the state, but this is the closest one.”
“Our conversation with IPL started about five years ago, and then they were able to investigate the possibility of a solar farm. They put out an RFP, we sent a proposal and were selected.”
Williamson said Independence's solar farm is an ideal location – rural enough that construction and operation will mean minimal disturbance but still close enough to consumers to avoid the transmission costs.
Andrew Boatright, deputy director of IPL, said the new site didn't change any economics on the city utility's end.
“There's no difference in transmission costs,” he said. “Both locations were going to tie into grid. It just moved down the road, just moved east from where it was. We had to look at the circuits to make sure, but it's pretty much awash between the sites for us.”
IPL customers have had the opportunity to purchase blocks of solar energy – up to 40 percent of the average residential consumption – at an average of an additional $2.37 a month per kilowatt, and they can lock in that price up to 15 years as a partial guard against potential rate increases.
When the city and MC Power signed on together for the solar farm, the contract called for at least 25 percent of the potential power to be sold before the farm could begin operating by the end of this year. That threshold has easily been surpassed, and Williamson said this week nearly 40 percent has been committed.
“I'm a bit surprised at the level of interest,” he said, adding that interest could pick up even more once construction starts. “For residential solar there's been a number of signups. We've had maybe one or two negative comments.”
In addition, the Bundschu Road site allows for more solar panels to be constructed depending on demand.
“What we typically see is the traffic flow increase from people coming to see what the project will look like,” Williamson said. “We anticipate interest building. We're prepared to have additional phases.”
Williamson what makes the Independence solar farm different from others MC Power has constructed is the community aspect.
“The exciting thing is it offers consumers a great opportunity where they don't have rooftop solar,” he said. “Our role is to educate them on the benefits of solar. Even if you have trees or not the ideal rooftop, it still gives you the benefits. For most solar projects, it's used to satisfy internal goals.”
Boatright, who joined IPL earlier this year after working in Westerville, Ohio, said that while community solar farms are a fairly new initiative, he sees them becoming more popular.
“In the public power sector, there's growing interest among residents because of the chance to participate at a relatively low cost,” he said. “The community initiative is easier to implement. I think the private utilities are probably doing a similar model but on a much larger scale.”
Once the solar farm is fully operational, IPL will be receiving 18 percent of its power from renewable sources, as it already has contracts with two wind farms.
“It represents something new for our municipal utility,” said Brent Schondelmeyer of the citizens grassroots group Indy Energy. “What the city has done in the last four or five years, it's really pretty extraordinary.”
And unlike the wind farms that are out of the region, citizens can see this power source.
“It's been a long time since Missouri City and Little Blue (power plants) have been regular generators of electricity,” he said. “I think the community should be excited about it.”