Ameren Missouri, the state’s largest utility, has taken initial steps to enter the renewable energy supply chain over the next several years.
Since May, the investor-owned power company, which still derives 71 percent of its electric generation from heavy polluting coal-fired plants, has announced plans for three wind and solar projects. The first of them was an agreement to acquire, after construction, a 400-megawatt wind farm in northeast Missouri, the largest ever in the state.
The company says that adding more wind energy will help it achieve its goal to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. It estimates that energy produced by the wind farm will power 120,000 homes by 2020, which translates to 10 percent of its 1.2 million customers.
The northeast Missouri facility would-be built-in Adair and Schuyler counties with groundbreaking expected in the summer of 2019. The farm would consist of 175 American-made wind turbines that will stand more than 450 feet above the ground.
A second wind generation facility of up to a 157-megawatts was announced October 22nd to be located in northwest Missouri. The farm is slated to be built in Atchison County, and when operational in 2020, produce enough energy to power 47,000 homes.
John Hickey, Chapter Director at the Sierra Club of Missouri, says the two wind farms together could help offset some of Ameren’s dependence on coal plants. “You’re getting in the neighborhood of where you could displace the production of a coal plant,” said Hickey. “This is not small potatoes.”
Ameren currently operates four coal-fired plants that form a ring around the St. Louis area. The largest of them, the Labadie facility, produces 2,400 megawatts of power. It’s followed by the Rush Island plant which generates more than 1,200 megawatts, the Sioux facility in West Alton that produces 1,100 megawatts and the Meramec plant in St. Louis which is scheduled to close in 2022. It generates just over 900 megawatts.
Besides emissions, an additional environmental issue at coal-fired power plants is Coal Ash, which is produced from the burning of coal. Coal Ash, which contains toxins harmful to humans such as arsenic and mercury, is typically disposed of in units known as landfills and ash ponds adjacent to the power plants. Of recent concern was significant spillage of coal ash into the surrounding environment near Duke Energy coal plants in North Carolina during flooding in September from Hurricane Florence.
The two wind farms planned by Ameren Missouri are subject to a number of conditions. The Missouri Public Service Commission approved construction of the 400-megawatt farm in northeast Missouri on October 24th, but the utility is still waiting on permission to build the Atchison County facility.
The company is also working to obtain transmission interconnection agreements from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). MISO is a non-profit organization that coordinates, controls and monitors the use of the electric transmission system by utilities, generators, and marketers.
The Public Service Commission recently gave approval to Empire District, the state’s third largest investor-owned utility, to build a major wind farm which will eventually allow it to shut down its lone coal-fired plant in southwest Missouri near Joplin. Empire was purchased by Toronto based Algonquin Liberty in late 2016 for $3.2 billion.
The Sierra Club’s Hickey thinks Ameren, which is responsible for more than half the electricity sales in Missouri, can play a major role in improving the state’s air quality. “Whatever Ameren does has more impact than any other utility,” Hickey said. “So, getting Ameren to join the new century is huge news.”
The utility is also taking baby steps into solar energy. It recently launched its Community Solar pilot program, an option available to residential and small business customers who support renewable energy but don’t have the space available for solar panels.
Ameren has proposed the construction of a one-megawatt solar facility just north of St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Matt Forck, assistant vice president of community, economic development and energy solutions at Ameren says solar is something that customers have asked for. He points out the pilot program could be a good fit for people who rent their home, live in an area with large trees and shading issues, or don’t have the means necessary to otherwise participate.
The program will work on a subscription basis and the solar facility won’t be built until it’s fully subscribed. Forck says the program’s availability to subscribers means the costs are only incurred by those who want solar power. “It means that only the people that subscribe pay for it,” said Forck. “So, if you don’t subscribe you don’t pay a dime. If you subscribe you pay a little bit more for your energy use, but that offsets the cost that you would’ve paid to put solar panels on your house.”
He adds that customers could use solar to supply up to half their energy usage. “One reason we did that is so we can have as many customers take advantage of this as possible,” Forck said. The utility estimated 400-600 customers could access power through the one-megawatt solar facility.
In the next few years, Ameren says it will be adding a significant amount of clean resources onto the grid. The Sierra Club’s Hickey says the first steps the utility is now taking are a refreshing sign given its history as a major polluter. “Given that right now Ameren is the dirtiest utility in the state of Missouri, is the most dependent on coal, we’re particularly excited to see that Ameren is now moving toward clean energy,” Hickey said.