Missouri Supreme Court Decision Is a Victory for Solar Industry

Renew Missouri

In February, Missouri’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Renew Missouri, a project of Earth Island Institute, and against Missouri-based Empire District Electric Company in a contentious case about solar rebates. Under the ruling, Empire must begin complying with a key component of a state law that Renew Missouri helped create and begin offering rebates to customers who install solar rooftop systems to offset some of the installation costs.

photo of a skyline, solar panels in the foregroundphoto Ron BergThere are new incentives for solar installations like this one in Kansas City, thanks to
a state initiative passed by Renew Missouri.

With this latest victory for clean energy under his belt, Renew Missouri co-founder PJ Wilson reflected on all that’s happened over the past few years, including his path towards becoming a renewable energy advocate. Back in the late 1990s, when he was studying civil engineering at the University of Southern California, Wilson didn’t think much about where energy came from. When he plugged in his vacuum cleaner, he just appreciated that his electric-powered appliance functioned.

That all changed in 2001. After the September 11 attacks, Wilson realized that America was too dependent on fossil fuels. And after reading an article by Stephen Hawking about the impending consequences if humans took no action on climate change – the Earth’s atmosphere would become like Venus, uninhabitable for life as we know it – Wilson figured a good place to focus his career would be on the promotion of renewable energy.

Wilson began his career in clean energy in 2005 at the Solar Living Institute in Northern California. While managing the Solar Living Institute’s internship program, he learned the principles of permaculture, and how to install solar as well as wind systems.

Wilson then returned to his home state of Missouri, a politically conservative state where 85 percent of electricity comes from coal. He set out to find work in the renewable energy industry, but soon realized Missouri was behind the curve when it came to renewables. The state lacked crucial policies for integrating renewable energy into citizens’ daily lives, including “net metering” and “renewable portfolio standard” policies, which are common in other states. But he didn’t have any idea how to go about establishing these laws in Missouri.

While coordinating volunteers at a renewable energy fair, Wilson met Erin Noble, who had just started working at Missouri Coalition for the Environment, a nonprofit based in St. Louis. Noble shared Wilson’s dream of transforming Missouri into a state powered by sustainable, renewable sources of energy. Noble and Wilson began working together in the fall of 2006 to achieve those goals, and together they formed Renew Missouri, which began as a loose collaboration between environmental and renewable-energy nonprofits.

Renew Missouri’s first accomplishment came in the spring of 2007, when the Republican-dominated state legislature passed the Easy Connection Act, making Missouri the forty-second state to implement a net metering policy. The new law, which Renew Missouri helped write and pass, enabled everyone in Missouri to install and interconnect rooftop solar and small wind systems on their property. The law also required utilities to provide full retail credit on utility bills for any power produced from solar and wind, and provided a streamlined application process for interconnecting these renewable systems with the electricity grid. The act was attached to a bill setting voluntary renewable energy targets for Missouri’s biggest utilities.

The Easy Connection Act became law later that year, but voluntary renewable energy targets for utilities weren’t enough for Wilson, Noble, and their new allies. So in January of 2008, Wilson filed a ballot initiative to establish Missouri’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) and require state utilities to boost their clean energy portfolios. The law, if passed, would require Missouri’s investor-owned utilities (covering 70 percent of the state) to ramp up their use of renewable energy to at least 15 percent of the power sold to their customers by 2021. It would also require them to pay rebates of $2,000 per kilowatt to customers to help offset the costs of installing rooftop solar arrays.

With more than a million dollars raised, and thanks to thousands of volunteer hours, the new campaign submitted 170,000 signatures, enough to place the initiative on the November 2008 ballot. On election day, 66 percent of Missouri voters cast a ballot in favor of Proposition C, making the RES law. Missouri became the twenty-seventh state to enact a RES and only the third to do so by a ballot initiative.

To learn more visit: www.renewmo.org

Renew Missouri became a project of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in 2009. That same year, Wilson and Noble helped mobilize solar installers from across the state to form the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, and in 2010 worked with the legislature to create a Property Assessed Clean Energy law allowing municipalities to pay all the upfront costs of energy efficiency and solar upgrades for home and business owners. They also founded the Missouri Chapter of Interfaith Power and Light in 2011 to help faith-based communities organize and become better stewards of the Earth while protecting the planet for future generations, and began work promoting energy efficiency in the state. That same year, Renew Missouri became a fiscally sponsored project of Earth Island Institute.

Since Proposition C passed, much of Renew Missouri’s work has focused on fully implementing the law. The solar rebates required by Proposition C have become the primary driver in establishing a mature solar industry in Missouri. Since the RES went into effect in 2010, at least 3,000 green energy sector jobs have been created in the state and more than 125 megawatts of photovoltaic systems have been installed on 7,500 Missouri roofs. At least 45 new solar companies have formed.

This solar industry growth has occurred in the population centers of St. Louis and Kansas City primarily because the utilities that serve those areas have complied with Proposition C’s requirement to provide solar rebates to their customers.

But one of the state’s three investor-owned utilities, Empire District Electric Company, which serves southwest Missouri, refused to offer solar rebates to its customers. Empire cited a law passed by the Missouri Legislature in May 2008, six months before Missouri residents had the opportunity to vote on Proposition C, which the utility claimed exempted it from any future laws that might require the company to provide solar incentives.

Renew Missouri challenged this so-called exemption in the courts, arguing that the “preemptive exemption law” was both unconstitutional and illegal, and thus void. In February 2015, after five long years of court battles and appeals and months of waiting for a verdict, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Renew Missouri was right; Empire’s attempt to appeal to preemptive exemption law was not legal.

This definitive ruling is another step towards Renew Missouri accomplishing its mission to transform Missouri into a leading state in renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2016.

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