Construction Begins on State's Largest Solar Array


Entergy Arkansas and its partner, NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida, officially break ground on Arkansas' largest solar power plant about seven miles southeast of Stuttgart, near Almyra.
Entergy Arkansas and its partner, NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida, officially break ground on Arkansas' largest solar power plant about seven miles southeast of Stuttgart, near Almyra. (Entergy Arkansas)
Entergy Arkansas President and CEO Rick Riley.
Entergy Arkansas President and CEO Rick Riley. (Entergy Arkansas)
 NextEra President and CEO Armando Pimentel.
 NextEra President and CEO Armando Pimentel. (Entergy Arkansas)
One of the 350,000 energy panels that will make up the solar farm.
One of the 350,000 energy panels that will make up the solar farm. (Entergy Arkansas)
Stuttgart leaders sign one of the Entergy array's solar panels.
Stuttgart leaders sign one of the Entergy array's solar panels. (Entergy Arkansas)

ALMYRA — To the muted sound of shovels in the Arkansas County soil and then the much louder strains of the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" from loudspeakers, the state ushered in a new era of utility-scale solar power Tuesday.

Entergy Arkansas and its partner, NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida, officially broke ground on Arkansas' largest solar power plant about seven miles southeast of Stuttgart. The 81-megawatt array will feature nearly 350,000 photovoltaic solar panels covering close to 470 acres of former rice fields.

After eight or nine months of construction expected to provide nearly 250 jobs, the Stuttgart Solar Energy Center will turn the ample Grand Prairie sunshine into enough electricity to power 13,000 homes. NextEra and its affiliates will build and operate the $100 million center and sell the power to Entergy under a 20-year purchase agreement.

The energy purchase price was approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission in September 2015, but the price itself is confidential under a PSC order. Kurt Castleberry, Entergy's director of resource planning, said the electricity was "cheaper than any other option, the cheapest generation," and Entergy Arkansas President and CEO Rick Riley called it "renewable energy at a good price."

Mark Bennett, mayor of Almyra, the town of about 280 that's nearest the array, greeted the groundbreaking with a sense of wonder. 

"My family homesteaded just three miles from here, and this was prairie ground at one time," he said. "As a young man I worked these farms and fields and duck hunted in the winter, and if you would have told me several decades ago that there would be 350,000 energy panels out here on a solar farm, I would have probably looked at you out of the corner of my eye and asked, 'What kind of farm is a solar farm?' "

Bennett and other local officials expressed gratitude for what they called a major economic development success in the farm country some 70 miles southeast of Little Rock, an area where Riceland grain silos rise like cathedral spires from the flat earth. Tuesday's sunshine was in perfect contrast to storms that brought disastrous flooding farther north a little over a week ago.

"I have no idea what it was like a couple of weeks ago, but this is amazing, unbelievable weather," said NextEra President and CEO Armando Pimentel. "This is going to be by the end of the year the largest solar facility in Arkansas. I imagine there are going to be a lot of visitors to the site, because it's going to be a cool place to see with all those panels. I don't know if it will be one of the top 10 most visited places in the county, but you never know."

Pimentel said he often hears dismissive remarks about construction employment numbers. 

"In the near term this means 250 jobs, and I hear sometimes well, they're just construction jobs, they're not permanent. But here's the reality: If you keep doing construction, they do become permanent, and that's what economic development is all about, continuing to build things for the good of your community."

Riley said Entergy already had one of the "cleanest energy production portfolios across the country, and this will only enhance that position for us." He said he would keep his comments short because he was "really excited about the shiny silver hats" that officials soon wore for the groundbreaking. On a more serious note, he called solar energy a hedge against fluctuations in natural gas prices and a tool to use in stabilizing long-term electricity rates. 

"It's a 20-year agreement, providing stability going forward," he said. "This project allows Entergy Arkansas to diversify our power generation and provide our customers with access to emissions-free, renewable energy.

"NextEra is an experienced partner to build and operate the project."

The Florida company is one of the largest wholesale generators of electric power in the United States, with about 20,000 megawatts of generating capacity and solar or wind-power projects in 29 states and Canada. It bills itself as "the world's largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun."

While power for 13,000 homes is a tiny fraction of the electricity Entergy Arkansas provides to its 700,000 customers, the solar project is certainly a major economic driver for Arkansas County and Stuttgart, a city with about 9,100 residents.

"This is going to offer a significant boost for Arkansas County," said Bethany Hildebrand, executive vice president and CEO of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce. In addition to the construction jobs, Hildebrand said the county will benefit from extra activity, and will reap an additional $8 million in taxes over the life of the array. 

"From labor to materials to housing to health care, a wide variety of our local businesses will benefit from the influx of economic activity," Hildebrand said. "Much of the $8 million in taxes the county receives will go for the school district and the local economy as a whole.

"So we are thrilled to host the state's largest solar facility, and glad it will call Stuttgart home."


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