Sustainable Living Fair puts spotlight on renewable energy

The Columbia Water & Light booth at the the Sustainable Living Fair showcases a solar-powered water heater. | Yizhu Wang/Missouri Business Alert
A Columbia Water & Light display at the the Sustainable Living Fair showcases a solar-powered water heater. | Yizhu Wang/Missouri Business Alert

Outside the Daniel Boone City Building in Columbia, where the 12th Sustainable Living Fair was taking place, a Columbia Water & Light display showcased renewable energy that observers could touch with their hands. The display featured two faucets — one warm, the other hot — with water heated by energy from solar panels, and people were invited to run their hands under the water.

It was a sunny October morning with temperatures in the mid 60s. With water running, the thermometer connected to the faucet of hot water displayed a temperature of 105.1. The number fluctuated as clouds blocked the sunshine from time to time.

These solar panels were part of the solar water heaters being promoted by Columbia Water & Light. The utility is offering a variety of incentives to convince customers to make the switch to renewable energy: Up to $5,000 in rebates for converting to a photovoltaic system; up to $800 in rebates for switching to a solar water heater; and low-interest loans for installation of the technology. That’s on top of a 30 percent federal tax credit customers can earn for converting to photovoltaic systems or solar water heaters.

Those are attractive incentives for customers of Missouri Solar Solutions, Paul Hemmel says. When Hemmel founded his Columbia-based company five years ago, he only sold one set of solar energy equipment in the first year. Now, he sells one to two per month.

At Hemmel’s booth at the Sustainable Living Fair, he explained installation procedures for photovoltaic systems. Customers’ awareness of solar heating systems has increased considerably in the past five years, Hemmel said. His company has benefited a lot from people who see neighbors install photovoltaic systems and become interested in installing the systems in their own homes.

Columbia outpaces the state as a whole in its use of renewable energy. In 2013, renewable sources contributed 6.97 percent of the electricity generated in Columbia, according to Columbia Water & Light. That cost the utility an extra $1.19 million.

In Missouri last year, renewable energy resources accounted for less than 3 percent of net electricity generation, with conventional hydroelectric power and wind accounting for most of the renewable energy portfolio, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“I think the single thing that people in America and businesses here should be focus on is transitioning into a renewable energy economy,” said Nick Peckham, the founder of Peckham Architecture, a Columbia-based firm that provides sustainable building design services.

Coal accounted for 83 percent of Missouri’s net electricity generation in 2013. Mark Walter, deputy director of Renew Missouri, a Columbia-based nonprofit focused on renewable energy, said he’s concerned by the dominance of coal.

Missouri also has the fourth-highest natural gas residential prices, at $24.87 per thousand cubic feet, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data from July. Renew Missouri’s Philip Fraciaca said more needs to be done to encourage utilities to shift to renewable energy sources.

“There also isn’t a force that really incentivizes them to ramp up their renewables,” he said.

In July, Gov. Jay Nixon signed an executive order to formally launch a comprehensive state energy plan, led by the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s Division of Energy.

“We need to have a clear vision for what our energy future should look like, and how to get there,” Nixon said in a news release. “That is why I am charging our Division of Energy with gathering input from stakeholders around the state and developing a detailed and comprehensive plan for meeting Missouri’s needs for clean, reliable, affordable and abundant energy now and in the future.”

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