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The Cost of Going Solar in the Ozarks

Springfield City Utilities
The solar farm run by City Utilities in Springfield

Solar power, a clean energy alternative that converts sunlight into electricity using photoelectric cells, is gaining popularity here in the Ozarks. KSMU’s Tom McFarland spoke with some consumers and providers of the service to learn more about its costs and benefits.

While many individuals that are going solar may hire a company to install the panels for them, Jim Evans did it himself.

“I did not hire these put in, I went ahead and purchased the collectors and I did all the installation myself, which made it very inexpensive for me,” says Evans.

Evans, a retired teacher from Republic who recently challenged for a U.S. House seat, says his two solar installations are more than he needs.

“The combination of the collectors that I have produces more power than my home and my electric car combined use. So, I’m over 100 percent. I am essentially selling, or giving electricity back to Empire Electric,” Evans says.

One of Jim Evans' solar collection arrays.

Evans, like others who use solar power in the Ozarks, qualifies for rebates from Empire Electric. The local investor-owned power utility serves over a dozen counties in southwest Missouri. A court ruling earlier this year ordered the utility to pay out rebates to its qualifying customers per compliance with a statewide ballot initiative passed in 2008.

Since May, when that exemption was overturned, Empire has expected to rebate approximately $2 million to 137 applicants for 1.7 megawatts of solar capacity. That expectation is based from two variables, one being the average size of the residential solar installations within their district, which Empire says is approximately 10kw, but can be as high as 12.8kw when including larger commercial installations.

The other variable depends on timing. Empire customers with qualifying solar installations who submit their application by December 31 and achieve operational status by June 30, 2016 will be eligible for a one-time rebate of $1 per watt of capacity in the system. Customers could earn a $2 per watt rebate if their system was operational before June 20, 2014, and a $1.50 per watt rebate if operational before June 30, 2015. Those rebates often help offset the costs of a solar installation.

In the case of Evans, “See I have already paid back about half just because of the savings on my monthly utility bill. If I add that to the rebates then at this point on the first system that I installed five years ago, it’s already paid off. So all the electricity it generates at this point is free," he says.

However the cost of those rebates will be shared among all of Empire customers. That’s according to Julie Maus, director of corporate communications.

“So while there are some customers who can afford to place a solar installation on their home or business, the rest of our customers will have the cost of paying those rebates factored into their rates as well,” Maus says.

For citizens living in Springfield, they can now participate in the solar rider program offered by City Utilities. Cara Schaefer is CU’s director of Energy Services and Renewables.

“The CU Solar Initiative is a community solar program, and if you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a program set up that is becoming very popular across the country, by allowing utilities to install a utility scale or a large scale solar project, and then allowing customers to buy the energy generated from that,” says Schaefer.

Not everyone is thrilled however, principally about the cost. Dr. Judy Dasovich is chair of the local Sierra Club chapter.

“We certainly applaud City Utilities and any other utilities, municipal, investor owned, whatever, cooperative who is moving towards renewable energy and away from dirty energy meaning coal. We are very happy about that. What we are not happy about and what we did not support is penalizing customers who choose to move towards clean energy and away from dirty energy,” Dasovich Says.

That cost, according to Schaefer, is dependent on how much the customer uses.

“ They can sign up for as little as one block of energy, which is one kilowatt of the solar farm, and that may run just about six dollars more a month.” Says Schaefer.

She notes that the extra cost does not equate to profit for CU. 

“We were able to sign into an agreement with Stratus Solar which built and maintains the solar farm in what’s called a purchase power agreement, and that contract that we have with them is for 25 years at a locked in rate. And we are just simply passing that to pass through to the customers. We are not making any profit off of it.” Schaefer says.

For those interested in installing their own array, Jim Evans has some advice.

“A lot of people out there are like me, they just like to get involved and do things themselves rather than hire someone else to do it. And I would encourage people to not be afraid, to go ahead and look into that, and look at where you can buy packages. That’s what I did. I just bought a package online, the system. Had it delivered to my house. Then went to work learning on how to put it in.” Says Evans.

If you are a CU customer and are interested in joining CU’s Solar Initiative, you can find more information at the CU website. The deadline to submit a Solar Initiative application is September 30th.

For those who may be interested in their own solar array, information on Empire’s rebate plan and its qualifications can be found on the Empire website.