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As solar jobs rise in Missouri, clean energy advocates press for better state policies

Among the projects available for loans through GreenHELP is installing solar energy panels.
Missouri Solar Energy Industry Association
A worker installs rooftop solar panels.

The solar industry is employing more people in Missouri, according to a report that was released this week by a renewable energy nonprofit.

The Solar Foundation reported that Missouri added more than 500 jobs in the industry in 2016, a 28 percent increase over the previous year. Most of the jobs are based in the St. Louis area, followed by Jackson, Texas and Greene counties. Clean energy advocates attribute this growth to plummeting costs of solar to consumers and rising public awareness.

“People are seeing solar on their schools, their churches and on their neighbors’ homes,” said Erin Noble, staff director at St. Louis-based company Straight Up Solar. “It’s been a really interesting few years in the solar industry and growth is going to continue to skyrocket.”

In 2016, Straight Up Solar’s staff increased from 18 to 31. The company also expects to hire 50 percent - 70 percent more people in the next few years. Noble also said that being positioned next to Illinois, where they also serve customers, helps business.

“[Missouri] is a really good state for solar,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation. “It’s coming up in terms of market penetration. There are decent state-level policies. And you see local governments getting involved in a big way.”

The state also has a diverse workforce, compared to the national average. Four out of 10 workers in Missouri’s solar industry are women and one out of five are ethnic minorities.

However, the Solar Foundation notes that the state has substantial room for improvement. The report graded states on solar energy access and for Missouri and for its net metering policy, it received a “B.” That refers to how much energy a property owner is allowed to generate from solar panels. In Missouri, it’s capped at 100 kilowatts or 400 panels.

“That’s just not very big for a large industrial user or for a commercial building,” Noble said.

In other words, it discourages businesses from investing in solar energy. Missouri also received an “F” for its interconnection policy, which refers to how well states help consumers connect their solar equipment to the electrical grid. Clean energy advocates say Missouri is one of several states that could improve the permitting process for those who’ve already paid for and installed solar panels on their properties.

“There are opportunity costs to that when you have a  system that can be producing clean, affordable energy, but it’s not because it hasn’t passed the final inspection,” Luecke said.

A recently introduced bill in the Missouri legislaturecould also dissuade residents who are considering investing in solar. It proposes to charge an additional 75 percent tax to solar energy suppliers.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.