Letter from Langdon: Power to the People

Solar panels turn the sun into a powerhouse, producing electricity for the farm and beyond. Missouri’s Proposition C supports efforts to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

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When I was just a kid cradled in the Missouri River Valley’s patchwork quilt of fields and farms, I never thought much about it.

I took way too much for granted.

Back then it was normal to see spotlights of river boats beaming across the night time sky while freight trains growled up and down the tracks carrying livestock, grain, freight, and the U.S. Mail into and away from Langdon. There was a big, barn-red train depot with telegraph and Western Union. The station master lived in a house next to the depot on the east side of the tracks. His name was Bruce.

Today, Bruce and the depot are gone, along with barge-towing river boats. Many houses, people too, are absent. Now our home-made spread of farms and fields looks mass produced, a corporate print meant to resemble the real thing.

Instead of a comforter made from the work of previous generations handed down, what we have is uniformly corn and soybean green synthetic.

But the trains still run.

There is no mail by rail. That moves via truck. What trains carry mostly these days is grain, new cars, cargo containers from China … and coal for electricity.

Lots and lots of coal. At least four long trains a day.

Is the environment changing because we mine energy out of the earth? It’s hard to say. Last summer was hot and dry. This one started out wet and warm. Now we’re cool and dry.

The way things blow hot and cold around here I could swear the House of Representatives must be in charge of it.

One thing I will swear to: Missouri’s coal fired electric rates (along with color TVs, computers, central air conditioning, self-cleaning ovens and long, hot showers) have swelled my monthly electricity bill from $20 in 1968 to $300 now.

Because of our coal addiction – more than 80% of Missouri’s power comes from coal –global warming, climate change and carbon credits haven’t been popular notions here. (Addicts never want to quit). In spite of that, Proposition C, a renewable-energy cure on Missouri’s ballot in 2008, met with surprising support at the polls.

Since then it has survived attacks from corporations that didn’t want to comply.

Prop C resulted in renewable sources of energy being more available in Missouri. Today, Missouri utilities have more carbon-free energy flowing through power lines in the form of wind-generated electricity.

Benefits of wind energy are most evident when rural schools gain a broader tax base, family farms receive a lease payment for wind towers or new local jobs pop up on Missouri wind farms.

Richard Oswald
Farm pets take a look at the solar-panel shipping crates before workers install the equipment.

Though some regard it as more efficient than wind, one form of electrical generation has received less attention.

All that changed at my farm last year when Kansas City Power and Light (KCP&L) offered $2,000 per kilowatt rebates to customers who agreed to install up to 25 kilowatts generating capacity solar systems.

Here’s how it works:

The KCP&L customer fills out a rebate form online. Then a contractor – there are several across Missouri – visits the site. Because we had two residences on the farm and use a lot of electricity drying grain, I signed up twice. (It’s important to pick a contractor with a proven record of reliable service.)

After sizing up both locations, the contractor suggested I build two systems of 25 kilowatts each, capable of generating all the electricity our homes would use in a year.

Each system cost $61,000. A $5,500 down payment for each was due upon signing a contract. I owed a second payment of $5,500 once each project was completed. Following final inspection and approval by KCP&L, the system was turned on and a $50,000 rebate check was issued by KCP&L for the balance.

I figure my share of the investment will be paid in full in three years.

Long sunny days are best for solar power. The net meter adds up a big summer credit we’ll use as days shorten into winter. Our deal with KCP&L is that generation offsets usage. Kilowatt hour credits last until the anniversary of the installation. That’s when any left over power becomes the property of KCP&L.

Richard Oswald
Workers lift solar panels to the roof of the machine shed, where they are installed. The other array was installed on the ground. Combined, the two arrays are rated to produce a maximum of 50 kilowatts.

It’s not the case in Missouri, but some states require power companies to write checks to customers when generation exceeds usage. There’s talk the Missouri General Assembly might make that change.

That hasn’t been the case up to now. In the past the only actions they’ve taken have been to weaken renewable-energy priorities that voters approved in Prop C. 

KCP&L isn’t the only utility company working on solar. Ameren and Columbia Water and Light are also offering rebates or net metering agreements in Missouri.

Critics of solar power say it only works in broad daylight. It doesn’t produce electricity at night and is reduced by shorter daylight hours and overcast conditions. And around the country, some utilities are pushing back against the installation of residential solar panels. But peak solar generation happens on days of peak usage, when days are hot and air conditioning demands put a strain on the grid. At times like that, my solar array takes me offline and feeds excess generation to faraway neighbors at the other end of the line.

It gets power to the people.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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