Missouri lawmakers consider community solar programs

Energy providers would be required to offer a program allowing their customers to subscribe to solar power under a bill in the Missouri Senate, though some sections of the proposal have caused heartburn among utility groups.

SB 824, sponsored by Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, would require utility providers to enact community solar pilot programs, which allow members of a community to buy-in to a nearby solar installation and receive a share of its energy and financial output. Providers would be required to pilot these programs from 2023-25, while solar power generation sites would operate pilots until the total solar demand from customers amounts to 2 percent of its sales for the previous year.

The bill would allow third-party groups to build, own and operate under contract with facilities or the entity enrolling subscribers in the program, though utility companies could build and operate the sites themselves. Third-party entities or subscriber administrators would not be classified as electric suppliers under the bill's current language, leaving them outside of the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission (PSC), Missouri's investor-owned utility regulator.

Customers participating in the program would also receive a credit to offset their electric bill, with the value of that credit to be determined by the PSC. Credits would be determined based on the value of a kilowatt hour of energy. Another credit would also be established for low-income participants.

Supporters said these programs allow customers who aren't able to afford solar equipment or who do not have the space to install it an opportunity to participate in clean energy use and support its generation at an accessible cost.

The bill would apply to municipal utilities, electrical corporations and rural electric cooperatives.

The language as presented would require Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, which covers some of the more rural areas of the region, to build or work with another entity to construct and operate a solar site near Jefferson City for participants to subscribe to. While some cooperatives in other parts of the state are investing in community solar projects, Three Rivers hasn't launched its own program, though it would be up to the task if the language were to pass.

Rich Eisterhold, Three Rivers' manager of member services, said neighboring cooperatives had enacted their own programs but had struggled to sell subscriptions as local interest waned. While the cooperative is equipped to handle such a site, members hadn't expressed enough interest to create one.

"There has been very little interest from the surveys we've put out to our member-owners," Eisterhold told the News Tribune. "We're very familiar with solar and support our members trying it themselves, the interest in that demands on a near-weekly basis. We can handle it if it's ultimately what the law requires us to do, we could absolutely support a large solar system if asked to."

Ameren Missouri, Jefferson City's investor-owned utility provider, operates two sites through its Community Solar program, with one in Lambert and another in Montgomery County nearing completion. The company plans to continue investing in renewable energy hubs and customer accessibility across the state over the next several years as part of its commitment to minimizing its carbon footprint.

The bill was presented Wednesday in the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee, where it received ample support -- and a few concerns -- from witnesses from across the state.

Among the witnesses in favor Wednesday was Jay Hasheider, a solar user and retired employee of Columbia Water and Light, who said a solar power system installed in his house supplied 80 percent of his energy needs last year.

"This allowed me to stabilize my energy cost during retirement while giving me reliance and independence," Hasheider told lawmakers. "Community solar has the ability to provide solar access for all electric customers, not just those who own single-family homes. Most importantly, this bill would open the opportunity for third-party developers to become involved in community solar. This would introduce a very needed aspect to the utility marketplace: competition."

Hasheider said Columbia had been looking at working with the local utility to provide a similar program for years, but had not made headway on it. He said allowing new developers to connect customers to solar would spur faster action from those already providing energy service to the area. He said other states who have enacted similar polices have seen economic and workforce growth.

Justin Idleburg, of St. Louis, said the bill could extend the benefits of renewable energy to Missourians in low-income housing and those without the means or space to implement solar themselves, looking at rate increases from utilities across the state.

"Everyone needs this. I understand we need to make this make sense in our hearts, our minds and our pockets," Idleburg told lawmakers. "This is a part of the sustainability and the infrastructure that we need. How do we co-create life post-COVID? Right now, we have the time and the resources to help this be part of a bigger community and rebuild Missouri in a 21st century way that is sustainable?"

While residents responded positively to the proposal, witnesses representing utility providers had their concerns with the bill as it currently reads. Trey Davis, president of the Missouri Energy Development Association, said the language could allow third-party or out-of-state entities to come in and operate solar without oversight by the PSC. While the companies represented by MEDA, including Ameren Missouri, have their own community solar offerings, Davis said they did so while adhering to the state's regulatory authority.

"This is something our utilities are investing in. We see the benefits and our customers are taking advantage of them," Davis said. "The companies I represent are regulated by the Public Service Commission, there's a great deal of oversight. So to allow third-parties to come in with no oversight or regulation basically creates a deregulation system for the solar industry. Where have we seen that work? Not many places."

Brent Stewart, general counsel for the Jefferson City-based Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, said there were several issues in play that directly related to cooperatives and their organizational structure that he hoped to see tweaked before it was sent to the floor. White committed to addressing those and other concerns raised by the Missouri Association of Municipal Utilities when the bill comes up for executive session in the near future.

The committee did not take executive action on the bill Wednesday.

Click the links below to read the full bill:

• SB 824: Creates a community solar pilot program


Sponsor: Sen. Bill White