Storm clouds from Tropical Storm Cindy swirled overhead, but south Arkansas energy officials were all sunshine on Thursday as solar power dominated Ouachita Electric Cooperative's annual meeting.
The power co-op and its neighbor in Camden, Southern Arkansas University Tech, "flipped the switch" on a 1-megawatt solar array in Holly Springs, the first community project of its kind in south Arkansas. (A much larger 12-megawatt solar field in East Camden provides power distributed by Ouachita Electric, but that energy is largely devoted to Aerojet Rocketdyne, the defense contractor with a plant in Highland Industrial Park.)
"Community solar is an opportunity for many of our members to have renewable energy that would not be possible at their individual home locations," said Mark Cayce, general manager and CEO of Ouachita Electric. "Participating in a community solar project… eliminates the problem of mounting a system on your roof and maintaining it for the next 25 years."
The Holly Springs facility will produce enough electricity to power about 250 homes a year, officials said. The system "will serve as a community solar option for members of OECC, and is the first community solar field in the southern region of Arkansas," according to a Today's Power Inc. news release.
Ouachita Electric, which goes by OECC and serves nearly 9,500 homes and businesses, also signed a solar power service agreement this week with South Arkansas Telephone Company and Today's Power, which installed the 3,800-panel Holly Springs array on about five acres of land.
SATCO, which provides telephone service in and around Hampton (Calhoun County), is building a 120-kilowatt array to power its operations. The 400-panel unit, expected to be completed this fall, is designed to reduce SATCO's operating costs. OECC, SATCO and Today's Power signed contracts formalizing the partnership at Thursday's co-op meeting.
"Our partnership with OECC has been very important in helping us become the first solar powered telephone company in Arkansas," said Mark Lundy, director of the phone company. SATCO and OECC partnered last year to form ARIS, a company devoted to making fast fiber-optic broadband services available to all of OECC's members.
Chris Burnley, director of business development for Today's Power, focused on cost advantages to solar power, something that Cayce emphasized in announcing plans for the solar array in March. "Working with both OECC and SATCO on this solar project shows the commitment of both entities to continue their efforts in offering low costs to their members and customers," Burnley said.
Cayce put it this way. "As a member-owned electric cooperative, we strive to respond to the desires of our members when it is economically feasible and cost-effective… The low after-tax installed cost of the system combined with the safety of its low-voltage design sold us on the product. We also take confidence in the fact that TPI uses proven, experienced utility construction crews."
Today's Power is a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., the utility service cooperative based in Little Rock that is owned by the 17 electric distribution cooperatives in Arkansas. It has has built several solar arrays similar to the Holly Springs installation at rural electric cooperatives around the state.
"With the help of Ouachita Electric Cooperative, Today's Power will have approximately 2,250 kilowatts of solar power installed in south Arkansas," Today's Power said in a news release. That's enough solar energy to power nearly 550 homes.
In addition to the other projects, OECC has provided a 4-kilowatt solar kit designed by Today's Power to be installed by SAU-Tech students at the college's Solar Test Facility on campus.
"Solar is an emerging industry in Arkansas," Cayce said. "Having qualified technicians to install and maintain these system is vital to the long-term success of these businesses. SAU Tech was created to provide this type of training, and multiple solar arrays nearby and now on the campus have created a unique educational opportunity."
Chancellor Jason Morrison of SAU Tech said the school is "excited to be a part of this new effort to introduce solar power in our area." He added that the opportunity to train solar technicians "is a win for SAU Tech and for our community."