Stuttgart's Stratton Seed Gets PSC Approval for 1MW Solar Array

Stuttgart's Stratton Seed Gets PSC Approval for 1MW Solar Array
Heath North, Stratton Seed Co.'s director of seed operations. (Submitted photo)

Stratton Seed Co. of Stuttgart announced Thursday that it plans to build a 1-megawatt solar array capable of supplying power to all 11 of its facilities in Arkansas and Lonoke counties.

The family-owned agriculture supplier also became a renewable pioneer as the first company to gain the Arkansas Public Service Commission's blessing for a net-metering facility generating more than 300 kilowatts of power.

Net metering is the system that lets utility customers generate their own power and receive credit for putting electricity onto the grid. Arkansas law sets the net-metering limit at 300 kilowatts of capacity and requires anything larger to require PSC approval. On June 30, the PSC gave Stratton that permission.

"Entergy fought us pretty hard, and we had to get a lawyer specializing in this area," Stratton Seed CEO Wendell Stratton told Arkansas Business. "But I couldn't have asked for more from the PSC staff, because they were so accommodating in helping us through this process. I've grown to really appreciate them."

The solar array, planned on two acres the company owns near its headquarters on U.S. 79 in Stuttgart, will be installed by Solar & Renewable Power Systems LLC of Jackson, Tennessee, a division of the Paradoxe Corp. Work is scheduled to start by early fall, and Stratton hopes the work will be finished by the end of the year.

The array will power Stratton's operations on U.S. 79, which will use about a third of the total output, and the other two-thirds will go onto the grid to be used by other Entergy customers in Stuttgart, said Heath North, Stratton's director of seed operations. Between the power reaped at the headquarters and credits it will get for loading the remainder onto the grid, Stratton hopes to nearly fully offset its $10,000- to $18,000-a-month electricity bill for the 11 meters it has at facilities in Stuttgart and Carlisle (Lonoke County).

The project is in its final design phase, North said, and final cost estimates are not yet available. One late decision was to put the solar panels on a rotating axis to track the sun and improve their efficiency. "The last ballpark figure we had for building the project was $1.5 million, but that's a huge ballpark at this point," he said.

The solar farm is North's brainchild, Wendell Stratton said. He got the idea when he set up a Stratton booth next to a solar contractor's booth last year at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show in Memphis, he said. 

"We started working with the PSC staff in the spring, but the process was slowed because there were few real guidelines to go by, and we had a little opposition from Entergy, which has an interest in keeping net metering facilities below a certain size," North said.

Entergy Arkansas' Kerri Jackson Case said the utility had asked the PSC to delay proceeding until Stratton Seed could provide final costs and designs, as well as aspects of the "interconnection application process" that help determine impacts on Entergy's distribution system and its other customers.

"This was the first full case before the APSC interpreting legislation from 2015 (Act 827)," Case wrote in an email to Arkansas Business. "Entergy Arkansas sought guidance from the commission on what the standard would be for applicants' burden of proof for getting commission approval for a net metering facility with generation capacity that exceeded 300 kW."

Wendell Stratten, who declined to provide company revenue data but said it employs 95 workers and has been growing for years, is proud to be plowing new ground in the state's solar energy process. "To be a small family business and be the first company in the state to do this in net metering is pretty exciting," he said.

"Stratton has forged ahead with this first-of-a-kind project in Arkansas that will be a benefit not only to agriculture, but also to our community and the state of Arkansas," the company said in a news release. In a telephone interview, Wendell Stratton said the solar project is something that's good for the company and "a great way to invest in an energy source that doesn't depend on oil or coal, one that's helpful for the environment. We want folks in the state to know that we're proactive on those concerns."

He said that an oversupply of solar equipment made in China aided the affordability of the project, and that the company hopes to blaze a trail for other small businesses interested in solar.  

"We're grateful to state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Rep. David Hillman" of Almyra, he said.

Entergy Arkansas itself is building a major solar facility at Almyra, about seven miles from Stuttgart. With its partner NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida, Entergy broke ground in May on an 81-megawatt facility with 350,000 solar panels covering close to 470 acres.

"Stratton Seed sees solar as a good longtime idea," North said, "because the panels have a lifetime of 25 to 30 years, and they will be producing reliable amounts of power over that time. When you consider fuel costs, we're limiting the company's exposure to price shifts and we're also advancing solar power in the state.

"We want other companies to know they can do this in Arkansas, and we hope to help the state attract businesses. Once we're in operation, we'll be offering public tours for local schools, groups and others. We're getting this awareness out there."

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