Ameren Corp. will build solar energy systems in Missouri and Illinois to explore how best to use the sun to generate electricity, the St. Louis-based utility said.
Ameren plans a solar demonstration project at its St. Louis headquarters, and another at a site to be determined in Illinois.
The electric company tapped Kansas City engineering firm Burns & McDonnell to design the projects, which it will evaluate for efficiency and effectiveness. At least three different technologies will be used and tested.
Once the systems are running late next year, Ameren will share its findings online with customers who may be considering installing their own solar energy systems.
Ameren currently has no solar projects, although it is working with wind, methane and other alternatives to fossil fuels. It is under mandates in both states to have part of its energy portfolio in renewable energy.
Ameren president Thomas Voss said the company has been evaluating solar energy for its headquarters for years, and tracking technological developments. Costs of solar power installations have dropped significantly, which helped prompt the timing of the decision announced Tuesday.
Ameren's solar installations should generate from 25 to 550 kilowatts of power.
Ameren's current energy portfolio consists of 85 percent coal, 10 percent to 15 percent nuclear, and a smattering of hydroelectric, gas and other sources.
Ameren and Missouri's two other investor-owned electric utilities are required by last year's passage of Proposition C to generate or purchase 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021.
Those sources include solar, wind, methane, hydropower, along with wood, crops and other forms of biomass _ but not nuclear _ at graduated target levels, starting with 2 percent by 2011. At least 2 percent must be solar sources.
Any rate increase cannot exceed 1 percent.
Voss and Burns & McDonnell's vice president Breck Washam said Missouri has little wind resources _ outside of northwest Missouri _ and is not reliable for solar. They said Illinois has slightly better wind resources.
"But we know people want to see it happen here," Voss said.
Until recently, Washam added, solar energy costs have been formidable.
Ameren said it's taken various steps to develop renewable energy and encourage more efficient use of energy.
Next year, AmerenUE will begin offering rebates for qualified new solar electric installations.
It recently agreed to buy enough wind power for 26,000 Missouri households.
In September, the utility announced plans to generate power by burning methane gas at a solid waste landfill in suburban St. Louis. When completed in 2011, the project is expected to produce electricity for 10,000 homes.
And through AmerenUE's Pure Power, customers may opt to pay slightly higher energy bills to buy renewable energy credits, which encourage development of renewable resources.
Ameren had planned to build a second nuclear reactor in mid-Missouri. But earlier this year, the company suspended those plans after lawmakers failed to repeal a 1976 law barring utilities from charging customers for certain costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity.
AmerenUE officials said without repeal of that law, it was unlikely they could amass sufficient private capital for the project.
Burns & McDonnell has designed and managed renewable energy installations throughout the U.S. and world, and just completed its own corporate headquarters demonstration project in Kansas City, Washam said.
He said the various solar technologies to be installed at the St. Louis and Illinois sites will be judged on power production, life expectancy and other variables.