By Stan Schwartz
More than 50 local farmers and other concerned citizens met with Ameren staff members last Thursday at Bowling Green High School to talk about the proposed solar farm the utility company plans to build in Bowling Green.
Ameren purchased about 440 acres adjacent to Bowling Green’s industrial park in order to build this solar farm, which is part of its statewide plans for solar generated power. The proposed schedule is to start construction late this year with a completion date sometime in early 2026.
Missouri’s Public Service Commission set up the meeting at the request of the Pike County commissioners, and asked representatives from Ameren to attend in order to answer some concerns the community had about the proposed facility.
Jim Busch, director, industry analysis division, for the Missouri Public Service Commission, said he wanted to give the community a chance to ask their questions about the project.
Because Ameren is a state-regulated utility company, it would need the commission’s approval before it could build the solar farm.
Scott Wibbenmeyer, Ameren’s senior director, renewable business development and acquisitions, said, he wanted to clear up any misconceptions the people might have concerning the facility. He noted that the company only plans on putting solar panels over 200 of the acres it owns, leaving the rest as green space. He also said they would have minimal land disruption in case they ever decide to return the area to farmland.
He explained that the company would be sinking steel shafts to support the panels, which would sit between 3- and 12-feet off the ground. Once completed, he added, the power plant would generate about 50 megawatts, enough for 10,000 homes a year.
Those who came to participate in this town hall meeting were most concerned about the construction of the project, the use of good farmland for the facility and what would happen to the solar panels once their usable life is over.
The Bowling Green solar farm is a small part of Ameren’s overall renewable energy program. The company announced last June that it intended to acquire or build 550 megawatts of energy for this program. That’s enough energy to power 95,000 mid-sized homes the company reported. One of those projects is planned for the Vandalia area.
“These projects support our ongoing generation transformation toward more clean energy while maintaining the reliability, resiliency and affordability our customers expect,” said Mark Birk, chair and president of Ameren Missouri, in a news release from last June.
In addition to these projects, several third-party companies are working to build their own solar-power facilities or putting contracts on land that they hope to sell to Ameren at some point.
Those are private companies, Wibbenmeyer said, and Ameren does not have any control over what they do.
“But there are a lot of private developers out there. Leasing land, purchasing land,” he added. “But the truth is if you look at the data, less than 15% of that ever comes to market.”
Bowling Green Mayor Jim Arico asked if Ameren would consider using land that is not viable for farming? The same sentiment was brought up by others in the room.
Wibbenmeyer said the solar projects need level ground close to current transmission lines for efficiency.
Arico asked about the amount of rock used to create roads for the construction of these facilities. Dan Stroh, Ameren career engineer, renewable and technology business development, said the extra rock would only be used for the roads not for the construction of the solar panels.
One farmer was concerned that by taking land out of agricultural production, it would reduce the amount of food the country could produce. It would also have an impact on the companies that provide products and service to the farming community.
Wibbenmeyer said the Missouri solar projects would amount to .001 percent of the state’s farmland and would not have a significant impact on food production.
Arico cited studies on solar farms that have created hotspots.
Wibbenmeyer said that is not a situation that occurs in Ameren’s region, because of the green space they maintain around the solar panels.
One farmer was also concerned that old solar panels would end up in local landfills.
Wibbenmeyer said that most panels are recycled, and that once a panel is no longer viable for commercial use—less than 80% of its capacity when new—it is still considered usable in non-commercial environments.
Ameren has 1.2 million customers in the state and energy demands continue to grow, Wibbenmeyer said.
Pike County Sheriff Stephen Korte asked about electricity rates. Even though solar power is considered more efficient that other types of energy, there are costs associated with developing and bringing that power online. Would solar power reduce electric cost to Ameren’s customers? he asked.
Wibbenmeyer said solar panels could only produce electricity when the sun is out, while a coal powered plant can run 24/7. But solar plants don’t require a fuel pump. Plus, a coal plant would require billons to construct.
“We at Ameren would use every tool in our toolbox for energy needs,” he said.
He also noted that the utility company gets tax incentives for putting in renewable energy plants.
He also noted that the tax incentives would be invested right back into the communities where the plants are located.
Korte was also concerned about what would happen here if lawmakers in Washington, D.C., decide to shutter coal plants and reduce natural gas production?
“What are Ameren’s plans then, if the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow to cover that lost energy production?” he asked.
Ameren has a 20-year plan, Wibbenmeyer said. Some it is replacement of current facilities, some of it is added solar and wind power, and a portion is battery and hydropower.
Arico also asked about the use of local construction and labor for the plant. Wibbenmeyer said they would be using union labor for the construction and it is up to them who they bring on site.
Presiding Commissioner Bill Allen, Eastern District Commissioner Tom Wallace and Western District Commissioner Brock Bailey thanked the people from Ameren for coming and answering the questions posed by the audience.
Other projects in the works
• Cass County Solar, a 150-MW project based in Cass County, Illinois, with a targeted in-service date of 2024 to be acquired by Ameren Missouri from Savion.
• Vandalia Renewable Energy Center, a 50-MW project based in Vandalia, Mo., to be self-developed by Ameren Missouri with a target in-service date of 2025.
• Split Rail Solar, a 300-MW project based in Warren County, Mo., with a targeted in-service date of 2026 to be acquired by Ameren Missouri from Invenergy.