During just the past year, numerous disasters, both natural and man-made, have contributed to the climate crisis. Just this past August, a wildfire razed much of the Amazon rainforest — destroying trees that help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. Problems such as this can seem far from home, but eventually climate change will affect every person on this planet.
In response to growing public concern about the environment, Inside Columbia Publisher Emeritus Fred Parry hosted a CEO Roundtable at Zimmer Communications with eight leaders from local environmental and energy companies. The event was sponsored by the Broadway Hotel. The hotel’s award-winning chef Jeff Guinn catered the meal that accompanied the conversation. Zimmer Media General Manager Carla Leible also sat in on the conversation about the environment.
While many of the participants are in similar fields, everyone had a different voice when it came to subjects such as how the local government should be involved, what utility companies should be responsible for and how to improve energy resiliency.
There are two main energy providers in Columbia: Ameren, a nation-wide company, and the City of Columbia. Both these companies provide the energy that Columbians need on a daily basis to do their jobs, feed themselves and their families and exist comfortably. Unfortunately, human actions have contributed to climate change and accelerated the rate of effects such as rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. In order to cope with these changes, energy companies must be able to keep up with demand as summers get hotter and farmers require more water for their crops.
The CEO Roundtable group echoed these concerns and discussed how both companies and individuals in Columbia can become more resilient when it comes to the environment and fluctuating demand for energy.
Role of Government
When it comes to laws concerning the environment, there is a range of beliefs on how involved the government should be. One area that especially concerns Columbians is government involvement on the local level. David Shorr, partner at Lathrop Gage and former director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, says that the main areas local government should be concerned with are risk and public health. “Economic choices are important to a regulator, but they shouldn’t be the primary focus,” Shorr says. “It should be what is the public health and what is the risk related to the public, and then let the public debate the financial consequences.”
Tom Ratermann, general manager of Boone County Regional Sewer District, agrees. “I think the role of local government, first and foremost, is the public health. It’s dumpsters. It’s waste water treatment. It’s public drinking water.”
Brent Voorheis, a wind energy advocate, local businessman and farmer, has had some struggles with local government when it comes to clean energy. He and his wife, Rhonda, recently leased some of their land for a windfarm and found that getting the paperwork for the permit to go through took much longer than expected — around seven months. “The company that we signed the lease with is called E.ON and they’re one of the top 10 wind development companies in the U.S. and they have offices in Chicago, Austin and San Francisco, but I don’t think they’d been involved with a county that required as much paperwork for a permit as what they ran into in Boone County,” he says.
Advances in technology have led to a crossroads in government involvement, James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri, says. “Before we had the technology we do now, some of the opportunities out there required a monopolistic body. It required one business or entity. Now, I think, when you look at the technology and how it’s evolved, people can have cheaper solar on the roof; we can put wind turbines out here in Boone County.”
Another advance in technology that Chris Ihler, CEO of EnergyLink, believes will affect energy is the increase in demand for electric transportation. “I think that electric cars are going to be on our grid far before we’re ready to receive that battery — especially here in Columbia,” he says.
Barbara Buffaloe, sustainability manager for the City of Columbia, agrees and believes that this demand can be beneficial. “When we’re trying to replace some of our existing generation capacity with renewables, there’s the potential to partner those two things together so that we have our existing contracts that we have as well and we can see the potential of this demand growth in transportation,” she says. “We might be able to help fill that with more solar wind, and other forms of renewable energy.”
75 percent of Columbians in a recent survey said they would support 100 percent renewable energy if the cost increase were from 10 to 15 percent, according to Ryan Williams, assistant director of Columbia Water and Light. In comparison, only 30 percent said they would support it if the cost increased 30 to 50 percent.
“One thing we’ve noticed is that more people are asking where our energy comes from or how clean is our water and they’re asking those questions I think because they’re seeing social media telling them that they should be concerned about plastics,” Buffaloe says. “Plastics are being recycled in Columbia, by the way, but when we did the survey for the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, we heard from both ends of the spectrum.
“I replicated a study from 1979, and it showed that community members just assumed that buildings will get more efficient, energy will get cleaner, our water will be distributed, and that will just be happening, so people don’t have to be an activist about it because that will just be the standard.”
But, Shorr says, what constitutes improved or clean has changed over the years. “Ten years ago, we talked about pollution in terms of parts per million but now we measure in parts per trillion,” he says. “Consumers don’t know the difference, and yet it’s continually being thrown at them, so they think it’s bad even if there’s no consequence.”
Williams agrees that there is a wide range when it comes to community understanding. “Certainly we have customers that are very eager to manage their own energy portfolio and they’re the ones that are more aggressively demanding more renewable energies,” he says. “On the kind of opposite corner of that, you know, I’ve had the privilege of being able to talk to some of our customers who just can’t afford to keep their lights on and their bills paid, so they’re the ones that are, ‘Well, don’t forget about me when you’re doing this.’ How do we make sure that we include everybody in this and are capable of making sure that everyone has a fair and equal opportunity to renewable energy and clean water?”
Shorr agrees. “There’s a large percentage of our community that just worries about the day-to-day things that are important, and so I think a larger portion of our community does not care about this topic, nor should they, because they have higher needs and higher demands. And to me, that’s a public health issue, and in part it’s our job to make these choices as cost neutral as possible.
“So I think it’s really a difficult task that the folks who work in the city have because they have to serve that cross section of people who can afford these kinds of changes and are willing to advance the ball cash-wise versus people who have no cash and are trying to figure out how they’re going to survive.”
Cost of Inaction
One of the biggest questions when it comes to the environment in smaller cities is, “What if we do nothing?”
According to Shorr, the biggest risk is demand for change. “The demand for change is not on this nice, easy slope — it’s affected by the media. It’s affected by events. It’s affected by politics. So, I think the curves are a big problem, and I think it’s understated, and sometimes it means go slower, don’t go faster. Because if we get some of the levels that scientists are predicting in our drinking or waste water, our expenditures are going to be enormous, and if we move too fast, we may not get the economic opportunity.”
But as Buffaloe reminds him, the City of Columbia is already spending money to mitigate the impacts of climate change. “Health is not often measured or easy to measure for people, and so when we talk about making the air cleaner or the water cleaner or just reducing transportation emissions, then I have the potential to help air quality and keep kids without asthma or keep people out of the hospital. So if you look at what Columbia has, if we were to do actions to reduce our environmental footprint, you could see about $158 million in avoided costs. $158 million that can be spent on something else.”
Another issue when it comes to public health, according to Owen, is that efficiency is not often a part of the conversation. We should incentivize energy efficiency for utility companies and allow them to have more funding opportunities for apartments, low-income housing, and then get money back for that, he says. “There’s lots of ways for utility-based financing to work on energy efficiency because I do think that there is an issue with what pressure you put on the grid and what issues you’ve got with public health that can be addressed with that because some of the best renewable energy is energy you don’t use, and I think that’s something we don’t talk about very much because it’s not quite as exciting or sexy as wind or solar.
“Big businesses and big corporations want to move to communities that have sustainable energy goals,” Owen continues. “You look at Iowa, which isn’t any more conservative or liberal than we are, they have areas where they let businesses produce their own power, which is something that companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Walmart want to do. Those businesses move there. There’s no reason why Missouri shouldn’t be getting some of those business opportunities as well.”
As a group, we need to determine the biggest priority and divert our resources toward that, according to Ratermann. “There’s a finite amount of money for environmental stewardship, and we have to figure out what the biggest priority is, and if it’s climate, we need to work on climate. If it’s lead in drinking water, we need to work on lead in drinking water. If it’s nitrogen in waste water, we need to work on that. But there’s a finite amount of money to go around.”
Companies that supply energy certainly bear part of the burden when it comes to save the changing environment. “What’s a utility company going to look like 20 years from now?” Owen asks. “It’s hard for anybody really to have an answer for that. You know, when you look at City of Columbia’s costs for utility service versus Ameren’s, it’s still relatively pretty good. Now, Ameren is also incredibly coal heavy still. I mean, they’re changing that. You’re looking at wind farm developments you’re seeing in northwest Missouri and northeast Missouri. They’re going to be at over 750 megawatts of wind in the next couple of years, which is going to have the potential to power hundreds of thousands of their customers out of 1.2 million.” The reason that utility companies are adapting, he says, is because there is a demand for it on the consumer side.
“Companies care about cleaner energy because their shareholders care about that and because they think it’s a good business model, and so they’re putting pressure on Ameren,” Owen continues. “I think that’s crucial because I think they see it as what their customers want, what their shareholders want, and the same way with the City of Columbia. It’s what this community wants.”
Co-ops, however, are a little more tricky, Owen says. The decisions are reliant on who is on the board of directors. But, he says, now the local co-op is discussing investing in wind and solar energy because it’s expected from the public and it’s more affordable. “It’s cheaper to have wind and solar as opposed to buying coal and shipping it in from Wyoming and having to spend all the environmental compliance costs that go along with that,” he says.
One thing that utility companies could do differently to become more environmentally friendly is to embrace nuclear production, Shorr says. “One of the things that’s lost in statistics is nuclear production is up in spite of the fact that the number of nuclear units is down and declining. It’s kind of odd that we’re watching them being eliminated when their carbon signatures are very good.” But, as Owen reminds him, nuclear plants can be costly.
Billy Polansky, executive director of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, believes that municipal composting is one of the most prevalent opportunities that could lead to a stronger adaptation of environmental stewardship. “Municipal composting is a part of the Climate Adaptation Plan,” he says. “For our customers in the city, there is a huge opportunity to capture the compostable waste and create it into a marketable product, which there’s a very high demand for. Anything that came from a living thing rots and creates compost and methane. There’s some capture of methane in the landfill, but it’s mixed in with all the other things, which just have to be buried, right? And so, if we could separate those organic materials out, you could still capture the methane, but you could have this food waste.
“When it comes to nutrients such as nitrogen, we’re putting nutrients into our agricultural production and then we eat it and then where do those nutrients go?” Polasky asks. “We bury them in a hole.
“Energy’s important. And I see a lot of parallels between food and energy. We should recycle. It’s a renewable resource that we can be using to produce food, but currently, the city does not actively promote its limited commercial composting services, there is no residential composting available and city ordinance does not allow private haulers to collect food waste.”
The reason for this, Buffaloe says, is because of public health issues. The city has ordinances about garbage and compost to maintain public health. But, they do provide compost services for commercial customers, for a fee. The main issue, Buffaloe says, is that the component of the utilities department that deals with composting is severely underfunded. “While we do offer composting services for commercial customers, we don’t advertise it heavily or have a lot of uptake in it,” she says, citing funds and staff needs.
Another way that consumers can practice environmental stewardship, along with composting their own food waste, is to support clean energy. In the case of Voorheis, this meant renting out part of his land for a wind farm. “When I had this opportunity to investigate the wind farm, there were three reasons that I did this,” he says. The benefits extended far beyond helping the environment. Number one — and I’m not going to deny it — there’s some monetary benefit to me,” he continues. “Number two, I spent 24 years on the Harrisburg School Board, 15 of it as board president. I have seen what the influx of turbines can do for a school district tax-wise. And number three, it was renewable.”
The Demand Spike
One concern within every energy company is the coincident demand spike. Ihler explains that it’s essentially a spike period of energy use from 3 to 7 p.m. “Everyone gets home from work and turns on the lights, turns on the oven, that sort of thing. That means the grid has to have a certain level of resilience by the national standard but also by the city standard to make sure that that happens.”
One method that some cities are employing is a bifurcated billing schedule, Ihler says. This involves having higher energy costs for certain times of day — during peak demand — and lower costs during other times of day, such as at night.
“I personally think that if we focus our efforts on driving down that coincident spike, it’s actually the most sustainable or the highest layer of stewardship on the electric side that we can promote right now for our local community,” Ihler continues. This is one way of focusing on the long-term versus the short-term. “If we are able to cut the coincident demand spike now, our community won’t have to invest money into our own grid five or 10 years from now in order to keep up with that instantaneous spike.”
For electric companies, the perfect customer would hypothetically use the same amount of power for 24 hours each day, every day of the year, Williams says. “This way we can predict how much energy people are going to use. It’s the unpredictability that’s so hard to plan for.”
In order to determine how much energy we will need in the future, integrated resource planning (IRP) reports are conducted around every five years, he says. “It’s a process where we essentially analyze where we’re going to be in the next five to 10 years to make sure that we’re going to have the resources to meet that. Typically, it would mean do we need to invest in new generation plants, and on the demand side, do we need to invest in customer programs to incentivize less demand? And, typically, we would do a blend of the two.”
Since electric growth is currently more of a flat line rather than a slope, that means that we most likely have enough resources. If after the next IRP, the slope is still flat, the city won’t need to invest in new resources for the time being, Williams says.
A common thread throughout the conversation was that education is an essential asset when it comes to environmental consciousness. “One of the things that I see from our customers (commercial, multifamily and industrial users) is that there are things that we know about the big levers that move the economy that they don’t understand,” Ihler says.
“Eight times out of 10, I can talk to a customer who understands that they get billed for the energy that they use, but they have no idea how that’s applied or how it’s used or what that means. They just know they get billed for it. There’s a disconnect when it comes to demand and how that can affect their community and our power grid. And so I think along with whatever misinformation may be going around, there’s actually just some clarity that could be provided with some simple education.”
Although climate change is impacting the entire world, we are fortunate to be in the Midwest where we do not have to worry about rising sea levels, intense hurricanes or wildfires. But, with environmental impacts such as increased flooding, droughts and rising temperatures, we still have to begin action to mitigate our effects on the environment. It is through conversations such as this CEO Roundtable that we are able to begin discussing the best way to take action — for everyone involved.