Entergy Arkansas, which just completed the state's largest solar energy project near Stuttgart in partnership with NextEra Energy Solutions of Florida, now hopes to top itself with an even bigger solar facility near Lake Village (Chicot County).
Entergy, an investor-owned utility, filed documents with the Arkansas Public Service Commission on Oct. 17 seeking approval for a 100-megawatt project called Chicot Solar, which like the 81-megawatt Stuttgart project would be built and run by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida. The solar electricity it creates, enough to run about 17,000 homes, will flow onto Entergy's grid through a 20-year power purchase agreement.
N. Wesley Hunt, senior counsel for Entergy Arkansas, the state's largest electric utility with more than 700,000 customers, discussed the Chicot project for the first time outside PSC proceedings Friday in a solar energy panel presentation for the Arkansas Environmental and Energy Policy Summit at the Clinton Presidential Library.
Other panelists were former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, CEO of Scenic Hill Solar; Jim Whitson of L'Oreal, which recently had Scenic Hill install solar arrays at two manufacturing plants; and Katie Niebaum, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association.
"The Chicot Solar Project — this is a new one — is very similar to Stuttgart Solar in design," Hunt said. "Again, it's a 20-year purchase power agreement whereby we will receive all the output from that facility."
An estimated $110 million project, the Chicot array will cover more than 800 acres of southeast Arkansas with several hundred thousand photovoltaic panels. Construction will bring 250 to 300 jobs to the area for six to eight months, and planners expect to spend up to $600,000 a year locally afterward for site maintenance and office rent. Two or three full-time workers will maintain the array after it is built.
"Before I came here today I talked to some of our management, and they told me I could say this: We're bullish on solar," Hunt told the Clinton Library audience. "We believe the things we're doing right now to secure energy through contracts is important, and we also want to own it [solar generation facilities] in the very near future."
Hunt noted the improving affordability of solar projects, even while disagreeing with Halter and Niebaum on rates the PSC should impose on excess-generation solar power now at issue before the PSC in a rulemaking procedure on the billing protocol known as net metering. But Entergy does not have a "solar is overrated" attitude, Hunt insisted. "I think not only have costs plummeted, but the technology is getting a lot more efficient, and we're already seeing the fruits of that."
The Stuttgart project began producing power last week, and for now NextEra is selling the electricity on the energy market; Entergy's contract to start taking all the power goes into effect in June. While the price Entergy will pay for the power is kept confidential by the PSC, Entergy customers will receive benefits, Hunt said. "For the Stuttgart Solar proposal ultimately approved by the commission we identified approximately $25 million in net benefits" that can be shared with customers. "For Chicot Solar, which will be a 100-megawatt facility, we identified over $91 million in net benefits, and 75 percent of that is going to be shared with customers. That's the result of improved economics that have happened just over a matter of years."
Entergy is a party in the net-metering docket before the PSC, allied with the rural electric cooperatives, major energy consumers and the state attorney general's office — as well as the PSC staff — in a subgroup of the Net Metering Working Group that favors paying customers generating their own solar power less for the power they put back onto the grid than the retail price they pay the utility for the energy they use at night and on cloudy days. Halter and Niebaum, along with solar contractors, their customers and environmental groups, among others, are part of a second subgroup recommending that the state keep its existing equal pricing for retail power and excess power returned to the grid.
In his biography provided for Friday's event, Hunt, an accomplished distance runner "specifically included some running exploits," he said, "because I've been in a lot of net metering working group meetings" because he wanted his fellow panelists to "know how fast I can get the hell out of here if they start teaming up on me."
Halter and Niebaum laughed along with the audience, but Halter later said that inconsistency on net metering rates could lead to "FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt" in the minds of potential solar panel customers that could muddy projections on how quickly the solar systems pay for themselves, thus hobbling a growing market.
Whitson emphasized that L'Oreal was pleased with the economics of the multimillion-dollar solar projects that Halter and Scenic Hill installed at the company's North Little Rock Maybelline factory and at another plant in Florence, Kentucky. The projects are part of the French cosmetics giant's commitment to renewable energy and environmental stewardship.The solar array will provide 10 percent of the power used at the Maybelline facility, Whitson said, while the company derives the other 90 percent currently from hydroelectric sources. In the future, though, he said L'Oreal would be replacing some of the hydroelectric energy by buying renewable energy credits from other solar projects.
Whitson announced that one source of the RECs will be the $10 million solar array that Scenic Hill is building for Clarksville Light & Water Co. The 20,000-module municipal utility project on 42 acres in Clarksville, the Johnson County seat, will have a capacity of 6.5 megawatts of direct current and 5 megawatts of alternating current. Some of that power will back the renewable energy certificates. "L'Oreal is happy to say that we'll be buying 100 percent of those credits," Whitson told the Clinton Library crowd.
Along the same lines, Hunt said that Entergy hopes to offer a "green tariff" program to its larger customers soon. "Experimental tariffs will allow our largest cusomers at first, then hopefully all our customers, to source renewable power from projects like Stuttgart for all of their energy needs," Hunt said. Plans call for offering large customers up to a megawatt of renewable power, for starters. "I expect you'll hear more about that in the very near future," Hunt said.