O'FALLON (AP) - With more than 100 days of sunshine a year and seven solar panels right next to his house, Tom O'Connor from Columbia saves some cash on his utility bills.
"Full sun comes close to producing a dollar's worth of electricity and we'd use about 50 cents worth, so we bank some credits," O'Connor said.
Credits pay for the electricity he would use on less sunny days. For O'Connor, this is a fair deal. On sunny months like March and April, he manages to bring his bills down to zero and earn some credits for the cold season. Although solar panels are just a small piece of the jigsaw, O'Connor believes solar power will be a game changer for the energy industry.
"It's going to be a huge change how energy works because the tools of production are now in everybody's hands," O'Connor said.
Soon more mid-Missourians could benefit from solar energy, getting electricity from a new solar farm in O'Fallon in St. Charles County.
Ameren Missouri recently started construction on the largest commercial solar facility in the state. The O'Fallon Renewable Energy Center will cover 19 acres of land in O'Fallon at Ameren's Belleau substation, an area approximately the size of 19 football fields. The project will install 19,000 solar panels, generating 5,7 megawatts, which is enough to cover around 650 homes.
The new solar farm is scheduled to begin delivering electricity to customers by the end of 2014. Ameren's president, Michael Moehn, said although it will probably not lower its customers' utility bills, it will keep the light on in their houses at the same rate for years to come.
"This is a commitment to keep the rates where they are today. We are 24 percent below the national average, cheapest in the state of Missouri and I think it keeps our commitment to keep rates affordable," Moehn said.
Ameren Missouri provides electric and gas services to 63 counties in Missouri including Boone, Cole, Cooper and Miller counties. The new project will also help the company meet the state's requirement to generate 15 percent of power from renewable sources.
"It clearly meets our commitment to Missouri energy standard and it's also a commitment to the environment. We've been working on renewable projects for a long period of time," Moehn said.
Ameren also gets electricity from a wind farm in Iowa, from water-powered turbines at Bagnell Dam at the Lake of the Ozarks, from a pumped storage plant in a mountain region of the Ozarks and from a landfill in Maryland Heights in Missouri.
Large solar plants might not cause pollution but they not casualty-free. A new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds that some solar facilities in California have killed and injured birds from 71 different species because of the intense heat some tower facilities produce and because some birds mistake the large panels for bodies of water. But the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said there have been no such complaints in Missouri so far. By contrast, the executive director, Heather Navarro, said the state should encourage more similar projects and get away from burning coal.
The new solar energy center will also bring 50 to 70 construction jobs in the region. Although Ameren Missouri does not have a fixed estimate of the cost yet, projects of similar size have totalled 10 to 20 million dollars. Ameren officials say the cost won't really trickle down much to the customers. For a period of three to five years, customers would pay one dollar per year toward the cost, totaling $3 to $5 per customer.
The federal government offers a tax credit of up to 30 percent to any company or individual installing solar systems. Combined with local and state rebates, the final price for solar panels could vary from region to region. The federal tax break expires in 2016.