As the state deliberates on how much electric utilities must pay for power that solar customers generate and put onto the grid, Arkansans have been putting sun-generation units on their homes and businesses at a record pace.
More than 350 Arkansans added on-site generation systems in 2017, raising the state's number of net-metering customers from 633 to 988, a 56 percent increase and more than double the rate seen since annual record-keeping began in 2013.
Net metering is the system that lets utilities keep track of the energy that solar customers use and send back onto the system.
The 355-system boom was mostly made up of solar arrays, with some solar-wind and wind-only systems, according to utility filings with the state Public Service Commission. The commission is in final deliberations on a case that could change state policy on net metering.
Under current rules, net-metering customers are paid the same retail amount for the power they produce as they pay for power they pull off the grid. Utilities, along with the Arkansas attorney general's office and others, have proposed that solar customers receive less than the retail rate, perhaps half, to cover the utilities' infrastructure costs in providing service.
The Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, an intervening party in the case, has argued along with environmentalists and others that the current one-to-one rate ratio provides a fair value to net metering customers and benefits all ratepayers.
A ruling could come any day. The deadline for legal filings in the case expired in mid-March.
Katie Laning Niebaum, the AAEA's executive director, said that the burst of new net-metering systems is a clear signal of "growing demand for advanced energy technologies and their positive economic impact on the state." She said members of her group, a trade association promoting the business of renewable power and other advanced energy technologies in the state, are finding consumers more aware of solar's affordability and payback potential.
"Companies are adding new positions to meet growing consumer demand, and new companies are entering the marketplace," she said.
The net-metering boom was particularly noticeable in west and northwest Arkansas, the AEA said, citing figures reported the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. In Benton, Washington, Madison, Carroll, Sebastian and Crawford counties, the net-metering count went from 300 systems in 2016 to 517 at the end of 2017, a whopping spike of 72 percent.
"We are installing solar PV on more than 75 percent of the new homes we're building and are also adding arrays to existing homes and properties each year," said David Stitt, CEO of The Stitt Group in Rogers. "The public is more aware now than ever about the environmental benefits and cost effectiveness of solar on residential and commercial buildings."
Caleb Gordon, co-founder and president of Shine Solar in Bentonville, said his company has grown rapidly.
"In two years, Shine Solar has grown from its two original founders to 57 employees to support this local demand for our product," he said.
Among Arkansas' utilities reporting numbers as of Dec. 31, the electric cooperative members of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. led the way with 598 net-metering customers, followed by Entergy Arkansas with 286 and Southwestern Electric Power Co. with 77.
In a news release, the AAEA said the solar market leaders among its membership are Arkansas Energy Ventures, Community Solar Partners, Entegrity, Picasolar, Richter Solar Energy, Seal Energy Solutions, Shine Solar, Silicon Ranch Corp., the Stitt Group, Sun City Solar Energy, Today's Power Inc. and TremWel Energy.