The following is a transcript of the May 29th 2013 interview of Microgrid Solar on NPR’s “St. Louis On The Air” hosted by Don Marsh. You can listen to the podcast audio and view the official page here.
Don Marsh: Welcome to “St. Louis on the Air.” How much of a future does solar energy have? It’s always part of the conversation during discussions on climate change and carbon emissions. To many, it does not seem to have taken off as some had hoped. We see some homes with solar panels on the roof. An experimental solar‑powered plane will soon be landing in St. Louis. Some communities are using solar‑powered public trash compactors. Interesting, but hardly reflective of a solar‑powered tipping point. However, we may be closer to that point than many of us realize. Many communities, including some here, are making a big commitment to going green and utilizing solar with the encouragement of the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s called the Green Power Challenge or GPC. We’re talking about solar power, where it is, and where it’s going on today’s program.
With me in studio is Kathleen Engle, a sub‑contractor managing Ameren, Missouri’s Pure Power Program. Rick Hunter is CEO for commercial operations at Microgrid Solar, a local energy services provider that emphasizes renewable energy, and Rod Thomas is Microgrid Solar’s head of residential operations. Lady and gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us. Nice to have you here.
Kathleen Engle: Thank you.
Don: Rick, let me begin with you. There is a general perception amongst the public that solar power is nowhere near where many people had hoped it would be at this point. Do you think that’s an accurate perception?
Rick Hunter: It is not. It’s easy to see why people would have that perception. Things are moving so quickly, but it’s not necessarily big in the media yet. That’s part of why we’re excited to be here today, is to let people know solar has gone mainstream. It is growing incredibly fast. The solar industry is doubling every year nationally. It’s the fastest growing industry in the US, and it’s really starting to have an impact. Now of course, that’s community to community. It’s not as big in some communities as in others, but it’s definitely become a major growth market here in St. Louis.
Don: Commercially and residentially?
Rick: Yes. Businesses, homeowners are all making the move together to solar in the markets where the economics work for solar.
Don: Rod, let me turn to you with regard to the residential part of this. Tell us what’s going on here. Again, I don’t see too many of those solar panels.
Rod Thomas: We often put them on the back of houses… [laughter]
Rod: …so they’re not real visible. Nationally, the hotbeds of solar have traditionally been the Southwest, especially California, and the Northeast. Surprisingly, the state that has the second most installed solar after California is New Jersey. Those areas have always been strong. It’s totally mainstream there, but what we’ve seen in the last, I’d say, two years is a dramatic ramp‑up in the Midwest.
Don: The reason for that being people are saving so much money, they can’t resist?
Rod: Don, it has reached a tipping point. It’s a combination of things. It is an attractive investment, but there are a lot of other reasons people get solar as well.
Don: We’ll talk in more detail about that. I want to turn to Kathleen. It would seem on the surface that this might not be in the best interests of the utility company, in this case Ameren.
Kathleen: That depends on how you look at it. They support it. They have rebates and incentives. They see where the future is going, and they’re sticking with what they need to do to support that.
Don: What they need to do? Legislation requires, does it not, that they become involved.
Kathleen: There is some legislation with Prop C. Yes, absolutely. Then with my program, however, that I manage, the Pure Power Program, that does not do anything to help them meet their requirements for Prop C. The Pure Power Program is above and beyond those requirements. They’re trying to do a multi‑pronged approach between the Pure Power Program, meeting the requirements of Prop C, and then also their energy efficiency programs.
Don: What is the Pure Power Program?
Kathleen: The Pure Power Program is the option for customers who choose to pay a little extra on their energy bill to participate in a voluntary green energy program. Basically, you purchase renewable energy certificates. Every month, you pay a little bit extra. Right now, it was $15 a month for a resident. It’s now $10 a month. You pay a little extra, and what that does is you’re purchasing a renewable energy certificate from a wind farm right here in Missouri, so that money is staying in the state.
Don: We’re talking wind in this case, not solar.
Kathleen: In that case, yes. With the Pure Power Program, we work with the wind, yes.
Don: Let’s talk about what other countries are doing. I have the sense that we’re lagging pretty far behind when it comes to research in this area. Are we?
Rick Hunter: We’re definitely lagging behind Europe, Japan, now China. China has really surged to the front of the pack in terms of clean energy, both on the manufacturing side as well as just how much is installed. But we’re catching up quickly, and this is one of the fastest growing markets. The US is one of the fastest growing markets for clean energy in the world right now.
Don: Why are we Johnny‑come‑lately’s to this?
Rick: That’s a good question. It’s a complicated question too. There are some cultural factors at Work. There are some political factors at work. In general, there’s been some skepticism about climate change that has helped slow things from happening here. If I had to point to one thing though mainly, it’s federal policy. We’ve lacked the federal policy that has been in place in other countries that has driven growth in clean energy markets.
Rod: Rick, may I add something to that? In some of these other countries, they’ve traditionally had higher utility costs than the United States. It’s traditionally been more cost effective.
Don: My understanding is, and I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong, as I sometimes am, is that actually solar energy is a little bit more expensive than what we’re used to.
Rod: It depends on the factors that you take into consideration, but once a solar system is installed, it continues to produce energy for a very long time with no fuel. When you look at it that way, it has a tremendous return on investment.
Don: Over how long a period of time?
Rod: Most of the systems we use have a nominal guarantee of 25 years, but I’ve spoken with installers in California who installed systems back in the 1970s, and they’re still cranking out electricity like crazy.
Don: How about on the commercial side?
Rick: The cost of solar varies quite a bit state to state. In Missouri right now, we have the best solar rebate in the nation, and that has made solar very affordable for both businesses and homeowners. That rebate applies for both. Basically, that can cut the upfront cost significantly, and the upfront cost has been the major barrier in the past. Essentially, when you buy a solar system, it’s almost like you’re buying 25 plus years of power up front. A lot of people don’t necessarily have the money to do that, but that barrier has been removed in a lot of markets through the combination of incentives and new financing options that create new possibilities.
Don: We’re hearing a lot about communities, not only here but in other parts of the country, that are becoming involved through this Green Power Challenge. Kathleen, can you tell me a little more about that?
Kathleen: Basically, Green Power Community Challenge is an EPA‑sponsored program, and it recognizes communities that go above and beyond in supporting green energy. Right now, Creve Coeur is our current city that’s involved in the challenge. What happens is you look at the entire city’s energy consumption, so the residents, the businesses, the government buildings. You look at all of that, and then you match a certain percentage. With Creve Coeur, it’s three percent, so we’re matching three percent of their energy with green energy, and that can be done in a couple of different ways. With this, we have been participating in the challenges with Microgrid Solar, so they can install solar either with Microgrid Solar or any other solar company, or they can purchase renewable energy certificates through the Pure Power Program or through another REC provider.
Basically, once that happens, then they will join an elite group of communities that has become a Green Power Community. It will be the second in the state. Clayton was the first. There are only about 35 across the nation, so it’s actually a pretty big deal.
Don: Clayton is up and running. Creve Coeur is about to. Is that correct?
Kathleen: Right. We are very close. In the next month, we’ll probably be able to say we’ve achieved that goal.
Don: What about Webster Groves?
Rick: Webster Groves is next in line. We recently got word that they were interested in participating in this program, and we’re excited that we’re going to be getting that going soon.
Don: I have to ask this because they recently had a fire on the roof of the Webster Groves High School, and the solar panels were blamed for that. What do you know about it, and is this something we should be thinking about, this potential?
Rick: I’m glad you brought it up. There is a lot of concern for those of us in the industry. Part of the concern is that this not get out of hand in terms of how people perceive it. Fires related to solar are very rare, and we don’t actually have the information yet we need to even know for sure that this fire was caused by the solar. There’s an investigation that’s ongoing right now, but I can just tell you that it’s very, very, very rare [laughs] that you have any problems like that associated with solar.
Don: Sure, well, a lot of things are rare that can nonetheless be dangerous.
Don: Rod, what about the residential aspect of this? I mean this has got to be of some concern if people are thinking about putting these things on the roofs of their homes. This was a high school.
Rod: Yes. Other than this instance, I have never heard of a solar array causing a fire. I don’t know that it’s been established yet that it did. I think there needs to be some forensic investigation done and there probably is being done by the fire department. I’ve never even heard of it.
Don: Yeah, well, you would think in something like this that there’d be a rather rapid investigation. I mean, how long, I wonder, should it take to figure this thing out? We don’t know, right?
Rick: Well, you know, there are fire code requirements that we have to meet with solar installations, and they’re put in place to prevent things like this from happening. As with all code requirements, I’m sure there are going to be some things that occur in spite of those codes having been met, and so we’ll see in this case if that’s what it was.
Don: I have to take a break in just a moment, but before I do I’d like to read to you a news story that has just come in. This is from the Associated Press out of Kansas City saying the city is making an aggressive push into the use of solar power. Officials have signed a deal to install equipment on 80 city buildings to increase the city’s use of solar power. The Kansas City Star reports the project will include installing solar equipment on all of the city’s police and fire departments and most of its community centers. Bright Technology, a solar installer [?] and the Kansas City Power and Light will team up on the project. They say that these units will supply 2.5 percent of each building’s power demands. That’s got to be very, very helpful to you here in the St. Louis area to hear that Kansas City is going at it in such a big way.
Rick: Kansas City, we have a presence there as well, and I can tell you it is a very fast growing market, and, you know it’s exciting to see visible projects like that taking place. When you have companies like Anheuser‑Busch, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Nestle/Purina installing solar, that sends a message. When you have school districts like the Clayton School District, Parkway’s Schools, Francis Howell School District putting solar in all their schools, all these things send a message to people that solar really has arrived, and if it makes sense for those companies, for those school districts, and for a lot of the homeowners that are out there in all these different neighborhoods, then maybe it’s worth a look. And so we’re always excited to get announcements like that.
Don: Do you have a lot of competition in St. Louis, St. Louis area?
Rick: Absolutely. There are over 50 companies installing solar right now and new ones being added all the time, which is a great sign of a healthy market and that this is not sort of a bleeding edge technology. This is very much just something that you can call and get solar put on your roof, and it’s an everyday kind of thing.
Don: I’m surprised that there are so many, but that would indicate to me that perhaps we have reached that tipping point if so many people are getting in on it. We’re talking about solar energy, how it’s being used in the St. Louis area. You’ve just heard from Rick Hunter who’s CEO for Commercial Operations at Microgrid Solar, a local company. Rod Thomas also with us. He’s Microgrid Solar’s Head for Residential Operations. And also with us is Kathleen Engle, subcontractor managing Ameren Missouri’s Pure Power Program. Three P’s in a row there, have to be careful how I say that.
We’ll be back to continue our conversation in just a moment. I notice we’re getting a lot of calls, not surprisingly. We’ll get to them when we come back. This is St. Louis on the air on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7, KWMU.
Welcome back as we continue our conversation on solar energy and its use in the St. Louis area. It is obviously something that is expanding. We just learned there are some 50 businesses in the community which are operating in this field of solar energy.
My guests in the studio are Kathleen Engle, subcontractor managing Ameren Missouri’s Pure Power Program. Rick Hunter is CEO for Commercial Operations at Microgrid Solar, and his colleague Rod Thomas is Microgrid Solar’s Head for Residential Operations.
Let’s go to the phones and get some of the listeners into the conversation. We’ll begin with Kristin, who’s calling from Imperial, Missouri. Go ahead, Kristin, you’re on the air.
Kristin: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I’ve been hearing news reports over the last couple of years about residents who have attempted to put solar panels on their homes or business, and neighborhood committees and boards were basically taking legal action to prevent them from doing this because it’s not aesthetically pleasing. I just wanted to know if you guys have heard of this and what can be done to kind of help educate people about the benefits versus their aesthetic distaste for the panels themselves.
Don: Rod, let me turn that one to you as the residential guy.
Rod: Sure. That’s a very good question. We have found that when the benefits of solar are explained to homeowner associations they tend to almost always approve it. So instead of taking an adversarial stance, we take more of an educational stance. And it’s not…I wouldn’t say it’s even the majority of homeowners who have homeowner’s associations, but of the ones that do it really hasn’t posed much of a problem. Matter of fact we get a lot of support form the homeowner associations.
I think the general consensus out there is that homeowner’s associations are more for the purpose of keeping track of aesthetic things as you mentioned, and this really doesn’t fall into that category. It’s a necessity to be able to generate your own energy. And there are actually states that have passed laws that prohibit homeowner’s associations from doing that, but we just haven’t found it to be a problem.
Don: Kathleen, just switch to wind for a second here.
Don: There are a lot of complaints in various parts of the country, most notably that I’m aware of is off the coast of Massachusetts, Cape Cod, where wind is the problem. They think these turbines are unsightly. Are you running into any of that with the programs at Ameren?
Kathleen: Not necessarily with the programs with Ameren, but, yeah, it is a concern. Certainly you hear about the migratory birds and things like that so there’s been…as we progress with technologies there are ways to mitigate those issues, so looking at the migration patterns of birds and avoiding those areas. As far as the how it looks, it’s one person from another will have a different opinion. You could say, well, do I like to look at those power lines that are out there? And it’s what we get used to. Many people find that when they come upon a wind farm that it’s actually mesmerizing so that you will have different opinions. There’s no doubt. But as technologies improve some of those issues can be mitigated.
Don: Rick, is wind your big competitor at this point? I understand that the utility company and the traditional means of generating electricity are the big competitor, but what sort of a role is wind playing from a competitive point of view?
Rick: It might be helpful to understand that there are two sectors in general when it comes to renewable energy. There are the utility‑scale clean energy projects. These are big wind farms, very large solar arrays. Those are going to feed right into the utility’s generation network. Then there’s what we call distributed generation. This is all the smaller solar installations that are on tops of roofs at businesses and homeowners. Those actually feed into the buildings of those property owners and directly offset their power use. The wind farms that we’re talking about don’t necessarily compete with those smaller installations. Certainly there is some competition between solar and wind.
A lot of what’s being done on the utility scale is through renewable portfolio standards, requirements on utilities to meet certain percentages. We have one here in Missouri through Prop C. Those usually have a solar carve‑out. There’s usually a solar requirement within those portfolios standards. In general, there hasn’t been a real competitiveness.
Here we don’t do small wind. The economics of that just don’t work so great here in most parts of Missouri, certainly in the St. Louis area, so there’s no competition with wind in terms of homeowners and businesses in solar here.
Don: Aside from the Green Power Challenge that we talked about a couple of minutes ago, pretty much what we’re talking about generally is on an individual basis, whether it’s an individual commercial building or residential buildings, correct?
Rick: That is the market right now in Missouri. It has to do with the incentives and how they are structured.
Don: Let’s take a call from Ron. I think his question will fit in at this point. Ron, thanks for waiting. You’re on the air.
Ron: Hi there. On my four‑family apartment, we’ve upgraded the electric service to 200 amps per unit. How much square footage of solar cells can we expect to put up on the roof to be able to provide all the electric my tenants might want in those 200 amp service systems?
Rick: That is a technical question that I’m not sure it would make sense for me to get into too much detail on this program for, but I would tell you how we normally go about answering that kind of question. We take a look at your roof using satellite imagery. We’re able to take precise measurements and determine what kind of system can fit in the space that you have available. Then we can provide you with different options in terms of cost. We can look at your utility bills and tell you what kind of offset you can expect. There’s a lot of factors that go into choosing the exact dimensions and sizing of a system, but it’s actually very simple process. We tend to put together proposals and designs in a matter of days, not weeks.
Don: Tell me about the Moonrise Hotel in University City. There’s a pretty good sized building that you’re working with.
Rick: I tell you, that’s one of our most exciting projects. We had put in a solar awning for the rooftop bar there on the top of the Moonrise Hotel about two years ago. Joe Edwards had been wanting to expand their presence there on the rooftop. He wanted a covered and enclosed event space. He wanted to use solar again for that space. We said, “What if we do something really unique? What if we actually use solar panels, the special kind, and have the roof be made out of solar?” That’s exactly what we did. We used translucent solar modules, meaning the light comes through them and has a glass ceiling effect. You can look up and see the solar cells. It’s just phenomenal. It’s the first in the nation. That event space has been hugely popular already as a result in part of this unique feature.
Don: How much power does that supply to the building?
Rick: The power production is roughly the equivalent to offsetting all the operations on the roof as well as the next two floors down in the hotel. It’s substantial. It’s an 18 kilowatt array or so, which means 18,000 watts. There’s an additional 7,000 watts from the solar awning over the bar.
Don: What does that cost, if I may ask, to put that together?
Rick: That would not be a typical project. Let me start off by saying that. I can’t even remember exactly what the cost was. In general, you can expect solar to cost, before incentives, somewhere in the range of four dollars per watt, or $4,000 per kilowatt of power. That would be a general estimate.
Don: Where are these incentives coming from? Uncle Sam?
Rick: There are two major incentives that we have here in the St. Louis area. There is one from Uncle Sam. That’s a 30 percent investment tax credit that is available both to homeowners and to businesses. That’s just 30 percent of the installed cost of the system. For businesses, there’s also accelerated depreciation, an additional benefit from federal government. It’s an accelerated depreciation scheduled ‑‑ five years, with 50 percent bonus depreciation the first year. The most major incentive actually comes from Ameren. That is a two dollar a watt rebate. Basically, Ameren will pay you. At the time you install the project, complete the installation, they’ll pay you up to $50,000 at $2 a watt. That can reduce the costs anywhere from half to two‑thirds, depending on whether we’re talking commercial or residential and the nature of the project.
Don: There are plenty of things out there that people can take advantage of.
Don: Rod, what about residential solar power? How much does it cost typically to put in these panels on an average home?
Rod: Of course, we get asked that question occasionally.
Don: I think you get asked it every time somebody’s thinking about it.
Rod: [laughs] Yeah. What we always tell people is…Obviously, there’s no such thing as an average house or an average family. We don’t try and squeeze them into a one‑size‑fits‑all program, but if we took a typical installation, I would say 6,000 watts would be typical. It would normally go on a rooftop. A system like that at four dollars per watt would cost in the range of $24,000, but as Rick mentioned, right now the financial incentives offset about two‑thirds of that cost, meaning the homeowner would only pay $9,000, which gives them a great return on investment.
I’d like to add one other thing, Don. Rick mentioned that Ameren pays a two dollar a watt DC rebate. It’s Ameren, Missouri. I only mention that because there is an Ameren, Illinois. I don’t want anyone to get confused. There’s a similar rebate that’s paid by Kansas City Power & Light. Ameren, Missouri and Kansas City Power & Light are the two largest publicly owned utilities in the state of Missouri. They have been real leaders in the whole solar deployment area.
Don: We have a gentleman waiting to talk to us on the phone about active homes. Very quickly, if you would, Rod, tell me. What’s an active home?
Rod: The active home is based on a model from Europe. It’s what you might call designed to be an energy intelligent house. It has features that adapt to the environment to make changes to conserve energy. For instance, it does have a solar system on it that we installed. I think it might be a net‑zero home. Do you know, Rick, if it’s net‑zero?
Rick: Yeah, that’s one of the goals with the active house program. It’s a certification.
Don: What does that mean, “net zero.”
Rick: It means that the house produces as much power as it uses.
Don: We have, I understand, Dave Smith of Webster Groves. Lives in an active house in Webster. Dave, you there?
Dave Smith: I am there, yes.
Don: Thanks for joining us. Tell us about your experience with your home and a little bit about it.
Dave: I might be your non‑typical user of solar energy, a normal homeowner. Was first introduced to the idea at the early stage of the project. Quite frankly, as I learn more about it, it just made sense. You all were talking about the rebates and the incentives out there. It makes it financially attractive to utilize solar. Going forward, the ability to continue to get what we’ll call free energy is fantastic.
Don: Is it free? Some of it is, but do you have a net‑zero situation in your home?
Dave: That’s the goal. At this point, we have only moved in just recently, so the implementation of the solar and running back through the grid hasn’t fully worked its course. But I anticipate over the next month or so we’ll actually start to see those results in our utility bills.
Don: How long have you been in there, and how long has it been functional for you?
Dave: We’ve been in just about a month. As far as functional, the solar system was generating electricity the moment it was installed. But we weren’t actually connected to the Ameren system until shortly after we moved in, so I’d say it’s been active about three weeks now.
Don: What happens when the clouds come in and the sun doesn’t shine for three or four days? Do the lights go out?
Dave: That’s actually the nice part about these installations. We are still connected to the normal power grid. When solar is generating excess energy, it feeds back onto the grid. When it’s not generating sufficient energy, we actually will draw from the grid. Over the course of a month or year, that’s were we get to this net‑zero situation. We aren’t short of power at any point in time, but as we generate excess electricity, it feeds the grid. When we need it, we get it. It all works out. We get credits from Ameren for that extra energy we generate.
Don: What recommendation for this sort of thing would you have for listeners who may be contemplating it?
Dave: Certainly, you want to talk to professionals in the field, the people like Microgrid. Determine what your energy usage is. See if it makes sense from a dollar standpoint. The way they design these systems is not to be power generators, but just to support your needs. They have the expertise. They go through the calculations and know what it takes.
Don: If you don’t mind my asking, but I think people do have this question in mind, what did it cost to do this in your home? How large a home is it in terms of footage?
Dave: Approximately 2,500 square feet. It’s a two‑story. Pretty traditional construction other than being built with a tight envelope. It is made to be extremely energy efficient from a structure standpoint. The costs are in line with what Rick was speaking about earlier, about four dollars a watt. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but it’s about a 5,000 kilowatt system.
Don: Congratulations on the retrofitted home. I hope you enjoy it. Rod, do you have any questions you would want me to ask Dave?
Rod: I think he did a great job of summing it up. But that was a new home. We do a number of new homes. Been lucky enough to work with Jeff Day, who is, I believe, the architect on that house, and Hibbs Homes, who’s a builder. They’re experts at building new construction that’s very energy efficient. But, in general, most of our jobs are not on new homes, even though we do a fair number of new homes. They’re retrofits on existing buildings, commercial and residential.
Don: Is it more difficult to do it on a retrofit basis than new?
Rod: No, I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult. We have it down to pretty much of a science. I think any professional company is not going to have a problem at all with the retrofit.
Don: Thank you for that, and Dave Smith, thank you for spending a couple of minutes with us, nice talking to you.
Dave: Thank you.
Don: I have to take another break. Let’s do that now. We’ll come back and continue our conversation on the use of solar power in our area. This is, “St. Louis on the Air,” on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7, KWMU. Hello, again, welcome back, as we continue our conversation on the use of solar power in our area, and the growth of solar power. We have an update here.
Our producer, Alex Heuer, has just brought me this note from Webster Groves. Mike Capriglione, Webster Groves Fire Chief says he “cannot be 100 percent certain what happened on that roof fire at Webster High,” we talked about that earlier with the solar panels.
“Based on the point of the origin of the fire that its cause did have to do with the solar panels or associated equipment. A meeting June third, between the fire marshals, school officials and the contractor to investigate the issue further.” That’s the latest we have on that.
Let’s go back to the phones. I want to bring Gary into the conversation. Gary, thanks for being with us. Go ahead.
Gary: We put in a solar array recently, because of, really, concerns over global warming. It was made financially feasible, because of the financial programs they spoke about earlier, and is expected to only pay itself back over rather a long period of time, but I’m sure it will. However, there are some hindrances to doing this that should be known, and that is that AmerenUE itself is a real roadblock. I could have put on a larger system than I was allowed to put on, and they really blocked it and dragged their feet for months.
I understood the time factor was unusual, for me, but they follow a federal formula, and it’s really for their benefit. It keeps competition down, and it keeps them selling electricity to us even in spite of the grid. But, we could have produced a lot more power had they not insisted on those restrictions.
Other restrictions are the city itself. I put this on a building I own that’s really exposed to the sun. My home isn’t as exposed, but I could have used the yard area and also an awning system. But, appearance, apparently, wins out over climate concerns, and I was forbidden to do that too. I think that people should realize that these restrictions are there.
Speaking to Ameren over this and trying to push them toward putting a bigger system on, I was told things that sounded a bit bogus. One, that the power grid couldn’t carry all this power, which seemed nonsensical, given the vast variance in power loads that the system carries from deep‑summer cooling to milder weather conditions in the spring and fall.
Finally, one gentleman there who is part of the program told me, “We’re only really doing this because of the federal government’s insistence on it, and when we get our own solar farm up and working we can forget about all this.” There are barriers like this and people’s attitudes that I think are pretty bad in not sensing how desperate a situation we’re in.
Don: Gary, we have the point. We thank you so much for the call. Kathleen Engle do you have any comment on these restrictions?
Kathleen: As far as the restrictions, I don’t. I don’t work with the solar program, so I don’t have any information to help him with that. I can tell you that what I do know is that Ameren, they see what the wave of the future is, and they’re trying to do what they can to support it. That’s really all I can say about it.
Rod: It’s too bad that Gary had an experience like that. But we have found quite the opposite, that, as I mentioned before, Ameren and KCP and L, are leaders in the whole country in supporting solar. It actually has a lot of benefits, I believe, for the utility companies. Because the distributed generation that Rick mentioned before, we put right at the point of use on the roof or in the yard, it doesn’t require the transmission infrastructure to get the electricity to the building.
Most of the solar systems that we install are designed to supply electricity for that specific building. They’re not designed to generate a lot of excess power to sell back to the utility company. It sounds like Gary may have wanted to put an extra‑large system on, or something.
Rick: Yeah. Ameren has rules that don’t allow systems to be net producers on the year, so there is a limit to the size of the array that you can put up. I’m sure that’s what that gentleman bumped into. I will tell you that for the most part, the solar installer, if they know what they’re doing, should eliminate a lot of these issues up front, and they should be the ones dealing with Ameren, primarily.
This should be a very simple and easy process. Certainly, there are unknowns when it comes to your homeowner’s association in your neighborhood. He brought that up as well.
But the vast majority of the time, we have a very smooth process. I would echo Rod’s comments about Ameren, they’ve done a great job, I think.
As this market has really blown up, there are just tons of solar rebates that Ameren’s paying, right now. They haven’t fallen behind in getting those paid in a timely way. They process the applications very quickly.
There’s great information on Ameren’s website about solar. They’ve done an excellent job on the educational front in helping people understand from an unbiased source how solar works and what it means.
Don: Rod, go ahead, you wanted to add something.
Rod: The rebates for solar are not designed to be permanent. They were simply put in place to get the industry self‑sufficient. We’re at the point now, where that’s becoming closer and closer to reality. I think it’s going to be possible for the rebates to be phased out. We, actually, support that as time goes on.
Rick: There was actually legislation that was just passed in the most recent session that creates a six‑year phase‑out of the solar rebates. Starting next year, the rebate will go from $2.00 a watt to $1.50 a watt, to $1.00 a watt, so that phase‑out is starting.
Don: What’s that going to mean to the homeowner who has gone solar?
Rick: At the same time that the rebate is phasing out, the cost of grid power is also going up, so the economics of solar are shifting, certainly. But they will still look good going into the future. But, I will tell you right now that part of the reason we have so many people moving right now for solar is that this is about as good as it’s going to get in terms of the incentives. If you’re thinking about it, this is the time.
Don: Go ahead, Rod.
Rod: I just need to mention again that the rebates that we’re talking about, only apply in the service territories of Ameren Missouri and KCP and L, in the western side of the state.
Don: Illinois is a totally different ballgame.
Rod: Yes sir.
Don: Back to the phones. We’ll bring in Jay calling from Normandy, which is in the ballgame, so go ahead Jay, and welcome.
Jay: Hi guys. Yeah. I’m surprised you’re giving so many kudos to Ameren. It’s only really because of Prop C passing by the voters that the solar industry is doing so well. I understand that Ameren was pushing, along with some rookie legislators, HB 44, which was going to really hurt the solar industry. Renew Missouri, you guys probably know about those guys, they were shocked by the committee hearings that occurred on this, that these guys, rural legislators wanted to basically gut the solar thing. When you credit Ameren, I’m a little surprised.
A couple of practical things. I am considering solar, I’d like your thoughts on ground‑mount versus a carport solar array. I’d like your comments on lease versus purchase.
I also understand that if you’re looking at an electric vehicle like the excellent Volt or Tesla cars that Ameren might relent and actually let you have a little more system capacity if that’s in your future plans. Your thoughts, and I’d like to listen on the air.
Rick: Ameren’s in a tough position. The way it stands right now, whenever anyone installs a solar array, Ameren loses some money. They’re a business and they have shareholders, so for them it’s difficult to support an industry that leads to a loss in revenues.
Don: Where every homeowner is potentially a rival.
Rick: Absolutely. At the same time, they’re very much concerned about their customers’ interest in solar and in meeting the demand that’s there, so they’ve been trying to find ways to have renewable energy make sense for Ameren to support. They’ve certainly done a great job in providing information. HB 44 was complicated. It had more to do with wind than solar, and big wind.
I don’t know if it makes sense to get into here, but I would say that there’s a nuanced position that Ameren has taken when it comes to renewables, and it really derives from the regulatory requirements that they face.
Look, we’re not trying to sugarcoat the situation. There have definitely been some challenges that we’ve faced in working with Ameren. Overall, we’re very pleased with how it’s gone, and it’s definitely moving in an increasingly positive direction as we go.
Don: Go ahead Rod. You look like you’re ready to…
Rod: Yes. I have to say that we found Ameren very, very good to deal with, and there are reasons for that. One of the biggest expenses the utility companies have is building new power plants. When there’s enough of this distributed generation out there, it relieves the necessity of building more transmission and more power plants. In that sense it really doesn’t cost them money.
Don: Kathleen, just a second. They are still concerned, obviously, about competition from the individual homeowner, the individual Moonrise Hotel, or what have you. That’s not totally altruistic.
Rod: It lessens their need for investment in other areas. Really, there are so many things to talk about with solar, and the utility aspect is small, but the gentleman did ask two other questions I don’t know if you want me to address them right now.
Don: Sure. Time’s starting to get away, so if you would do it briefly.
Rod: He asked about ground‑mounted systems versus roof‑mounted. I would say about 80 percent of our systems are roof‑mounted, just because it’s a convenient place to put them. A lot of times the roof has the right angle, and everything, it just makes it ideal. We do do quite a number of ground‑mounted systems, oftentimes, not always, but oftentimes, those are in more rural areas, where people have just expansive property. Either one is fine. Ground‑mount is slightly more expensive because it requires a little bit more supportive racking.
On the lease versus sale finance models, it really comes down to the individual homeowner’s situation. Most of our customers are purchasing solar, just buying it, and enjoying all the financial benefits going forward.
If somebody doesn’t want to lay out cash up front, they can lease the equipment, and then the equipment continues to be owned by the finance company, and they simply get cheaper electricity.
Don: Kathleen you looked as if you wanted to get in on the Ameren part of the issue.
Kathleen: I did, thanks. I just want to say, yes, Rod did nail it. Ameren is in a tough position. They have to make some choices. They are a utility. They have to look ahead at what their options are. They are supporting what they see is the future, solar, wind, et cetera. The greenest energy is the energy that you don’t use, so energy efficiency. They have a huge energy efficiency program going on right now at actonenergy.com you can learn more about that.
The incentives they’re offering for the solar. We all use Ameren, we have to look at that and say, “We all are a part of that.”
Don: Like we had a choice. Unless, we install something like what we’re talking about.
Kathleen: Right. That’s why there are other choices that are being offered.
Don: Let’s go back to the phones and bring in Shannon calling from St. Louis. Shannon, go ahead.
Shannon: Hello. Can you hear me?
Don: Yes, go ahead.
Shannon: I’m a solar TV design engineer. I just want to make two comments. One, on the distributed‑generation model, I think that utilities ultimately have to start shifting their thinking process that their primary source of income is generating electricity from the large, centralized power plants to overseeing it. Because there greatest asset is actually their infrastructure, their transmission lines.
What we’re seeing is a shift, a decoupling of that, just like the way the Internet infrastructure is decoupled from the content, so it allows independent parties to exchange information over a common line. I think that’s one way we have to go.
Just another comment on the fire situation. I urge people not to get too concerned about that. It’s extremely rare. There was one large fire, known as the Bakersfield Fire, out in California, a number of years ago, which did result in some National Electric Code changes.
But, really the cause of that was it really had to do with some defective electrical conduit‑type installation, not really inherent to the solar technology. That was the main comment I wanted to make. Thank you. .
Don: Thank you so much for the call. Any comment to Shannon’s remarks? Let’s move along. Kristen is in Imperial, and let’s take Kristen’s call. Go ahead.
Kristen: Hi, thank you. I just wanted to add to a comment you guys made earlier about the output of the systems being in Ameren’s best interests to keep it under, so that the systems are not constantly putting out electricity due to financial concerns. But, there’s also a human concern. Because when linemen go out to work on a power line, Ameren at the plant, from the source, can make a line dead, meaning there’s no electricity in it and it becomes safe for that lineman to work on.
If you have lines where there’s electricity feeding through them from a source that Ameren cannot shut off, it makes it more dangerous and difficult for those people who are out there fixing the lines and forms and stuff, to do their jobs safely, so there is another concern besides just a financial incentive.
Don: Thanks a lot Kristen. Go ahead, Rod.
Rod: She’s exactly right. When there’s a power outage, say, when one of these windstorms comes through and blows down trees and knocks all the electric lines out, the solar system on a person’s house is capable of continuing to produce electricity for that house. However, we have it automatically shut off in that case, when the grid goes down, because repairmen working on the electric lines could conceivably be injured by electricity feeding onto the lines from the solar system.
Our systems are designed to automatically shut down when the power grid goes down, and automatically restore when the power grid comes back.
Don: Thank you very much for that. I have a question here from one of our producers wondering, “What happens if you need a new roof? If you’ve got this solar stuff on your roof and you need a new roof.” It has to be done quickly, the answer.
Rod: If your roof is going to be replaced within five years, it makes sense to do the solar and the roof at the same time. Otherwise, we can pop the panels off and put them back on.
Rick: For commercial projects, a lot of times we can move the array on the roof, so you can replace the roof. Just move the array to another part of the roof, and move it back when you’re complete, so it can be very cost effective. Right now the paybacks are so short on commercial solar arrays that we tell people three years, if within three years you’re going to be putting on a new roof, you might want to wait and do solar at that time. Other than that, you should just go ahead and plan on moving it.
Don: By the way, we’ll put a link to your website on our website at stlpublicradio.org, because there are a couple of things that we didn’t get to today that I know you probably wanted to talk about with regard to education programs that you’re doing and something called the Solar Express, where people who have cell phones, and everybody does, can have a great opportunity to recharge through solar. Thank you so much for being with us. Kathleen Engle, thank you for being with us today. Rick Hunter, great to talk to you, and Rod Thomas, thank you so much for being with us. Most informative, thanks.
Tomorrow on “St. Louis On the Air,” we’ll talk with, “Post‑Dispatch,” Editor and columnist, Aisha Sultan, about her new project to encourage conversations about issues facing those who are juggling parenting, work and other responsibilities.
Archived versions of past “St. Louis on the Air,” programs are available for download or podcast at stlpublicradio.org. “St. Louis on the Air,” is a production of St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7, KWMU. Thank you so much for listening, I’m Don Marsh.