The sun played peekaboo on Wednesday, but officials were beaming nonetheless as Today’s Power Inc. of Little Rock added to its growing string of small utility-scale solar power projects around the state, breaking ground on a one-megawatt array near Newport.
The project is in partnership with Farmers Electric Cooperative Corp., based in the Jackson County seat.LCovering more than eight acres off U.S. 67 outside town, the project will feature nearly 4,000 photovoltaic panels on single-axis tracking technology designed to provide renewable energy for cooperative members for a quarter-century or more.
“The sun was hardly shining yet when we broke ground this morning,” Today’s Power Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator Jennah Denney told Arkansas Business. That didn’t stop the gathered officials and dignitaries from beaming. “It’s our fourth groundbreaking this year,” Denney said. “The natural state is getting more natural one solar panel at a time.“
Today’s Power, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., is building the solar plant and will operate it under a power-purchase agreement with Farmers Electric, which serves about 5,200 members in Jackson, Independence, Poinsett and Woodruff counties.
Farmers Electric is the ninth of the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives to partner with Today’s Power on announced solar energy projects. Denney said a 10th cooperative project will be announced April 17.
TPI will build and maintain the plant, with Farmers Electric buying the power at a set price expected to save co-op members $80,000 a year. The project should be completed by June, officials said.
“We believe that this type of project brings hope,” said Farmers Electric’s aptly named CEO, Larry Bright. “Solar energy has the capacity to empower institutions and communities in very positive ways. Arkansas is one of the sunniest states in the country,” and that potential needs to be leveraged, he said.
Bright had noticed the falling cost of solar power installation, and beyond the benefits to members, he sees the project as an economic development showcase. “We wanted great visibility, economic development for the city and county, and an area that this investment would help grow,” Bright said, praising cooperation with the city, county and Newport Schools.
Michael Henderson, Today’s Power’s president, praised Farmers Electric managers and board members “for recognizing how a project like this can serve as a stimulus for economic development for the entire area.”
The groundbreaking came only days after Entergy Arkansas announced plans for a much larger solar plant about 45 miles south. That project, a 100-megawatt array on 800 acres near Searcy, would be the largest utility-owned solar plant and the first to include a battery for power storage. To be constructed by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources of Florida, it’s expected to come online in 2021.
Entergy partnered with NextEra on its first two major solar energy projects, an 81-megawatt station near Stuttgart and a 100-megawatt project near Lake Village. With the addition of the plant near Searcy, the investor-owned utility, which serves some 700,000 homes and businesses in Arkansas, will produce enough solar energy to power 45,000 houses.
In an interview with Arkansas Business, Entergy Arkansas’ Kurt Castleberry said the utility is “excited and bullish” on solar power. “We want to be a leader in renewable power, and after this groundbreaking, we’ll still be looking for more renewable projects.”
Castleberry, Entergy’s director of resource planning and market operations, said the Searcy project “will be just like Stuttgart but bigger, and easier to find. “These are very large facilities, and they provide benefits to the customer, economic and environmental benefits. There are also economic development benefits, developing the tax base and the effects of the construction hiring. It takes a couple hundred workers to build these projects over a year’s time.”
He also said the project would generate “almost a million dollars a year in property taxes.”
Entergy is seeking more renewable power -- 200 megawatts -- in another request for proposals from developers. “Potential suppliers are offering up proposals,” Castleberry said. “This will continue to be something we’ll pursue.”