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Uncertainty of renewable energy incentives a challenge for Missouri solar companies

Solar panels are one upgrade business can make with PACE financing. The Fairview Heights City Council will consider tonight whether to allow the financing program in its city.
File photo| Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

The uncertainty of state and federal incentives for wind and solar power may have hampered some of Missouri's growth in the renewable energy industry in recent years, but companies are pressing on. 

Solar panel installers StraightUp Solar and Brightergy participated in a conference call Thursday with the energy policy arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The call was timed with the release of the council's annual “Clean Jobs” survey of renewable energy employers in the state of Missouri. The group is pushing for robust incentives for renewable energy and for efficiency measures to be included in the state's Clean Energy Plan which is due at the end of next month. 

"These clean energy jobs are a driving force in the Midwest," said Gail Parson, the Midwest advocate for group's Environmental Entrepreneurs. "The industry is poised to grow 7 percent in 2015, an anticipated increase of 3,000 workers." 

According to the report, 39 percent of 708 respondents listed clean energy incentives, such as rebates for installing solar panels, as one of the biggest drivers in increasing business. 

In the past year, St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar has cut its workforce by 25 percent. The company’s director of strategic development, Mike Hornistchek, attributes the change in part to AmerenMissouri's abrupt end to its rebate program in 2014.

“We believe that’s the right sizing to position ourselves to now grow again,” Honristchek said, pointing out the company’s expansion into Illinois. “We are selling, even without incentives. There are people who are willing to do that.”

Between 2010 and 2014, Missouri's program gave consumers a $2 per watt rebate to help recover the cost of installing solar energy systems, financed by AmerenMissouri and Kansas City Power & Light. Both investor-owned utilities were required by state law to get 2 percent of their power from solar energy, unless those changes would hike customer rates by more than 1 percent. In 2013 and 2014, the two announced they had hit that 1 percent mark, and ended the programs.

“Frankly, most people were put into a position of stasis who were considering solar. Many felt they had just missed out on this opportunity and were feeling a little bit betrayed,” Honistchek said, adding that sales were “at a standstill” in the first three months of last year, but that the company was able to clear out its inventory.

Kansas City-based Brightergy has added employees, said Paul Snider, the organization’s vice president of government affairs. He attributed the growth to diversifying the business into other renewable energy sectors.

Despite the rebate’s end, Missouri added 73 megawatts of solar electric capacity in 2014, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The report ranked Missouri 11th in the country for solar growth. Major projects included the completion of the Butler Solar Farm by MC Power, and AmerenMissouri’s 17,000-panel center in O’Fallon.

But overall, Missouri’s renewable energy sector has a long way to go. Since December, 2014, almost 84 percent of net electricity generated in the state came from coal-fired sources. Less than 2 percent was generated by hydroelectric facilities or other renewables, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

With federal tax incentives for residential solar panels set to expire by the end of 2016, Hornitchek said the solar industry must evolve to where it no longer depends on subsidies. 

"It could be the point to where the solar industry can stand on its own two feet, even in Missouri," Hornitchek said.