The Arkansas Advanced Energy Association examined utility trends, heard from industry leaders and bestowed awards for energy efficiency and renewable innovations Tuesday in Little Rock.
But the annual conference's "mic-drop moment" came when an award winner announced that he'll be seeking the state's first utility-wide electricity rate decrease tied to savings from solar power.
Mark Cayce, CEO of Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp. of Camden, drew a standing ovation from the energy efficiency and solar crowd at Heifer International headquarters when he made the rate announcement after receiving the association's initial Advanced Energy Pioneer Award.
"I made some pretty bold statements in support of solar power when the Legislature was considering solar policy, predicting that solar could actually bring rates down," Cayce told the gathered renewable energy entrepreneurs, contractors and utility representatives. "Today I can announce that after our most recent rate study, on Oct. 17 we're going to be seeking a 4 and 1/2-percent rate decrease at Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp."
The award to Cayce was a surprise, coming after the announcement of traditional awards granted by the organization, a trade group serving as the business voice for advanced energy enterprises in the state. AAEA Executive Director Katie Laning Niebaum called Cayce a "true pioneer" of solar power in Arkansas.
OECC, which serves about 7,000 members in south Arkansas and north Louisiana, was an early solar adopter as a partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc. in a 12-megawatt array to power defense plant operations in East Camden in 2016. At the time, the array was the state's largest solar project.
OECC later built its own community solar station outside its Camden headquarters, and partnered with Today's Power Inc. on an array for Southern Arkansas University Tech in Camden.
Cayce has said that solar power saves the cooperative's members by significantly reducing the amount of power the utility has to buy at premium prices during peak summer usage.
"That was the mic-drop moment," said Josh Davenport, CEO of Seal Solar Solutions of North Little Rock, describing Cayce's rate-cut announcement. "We hear about cost-shifting from solar, but this is savings-shifting," he said, referring to the common utility argument that solar adoption shifts infrastructure costs to utility customers who don't have solar power.
"This is the opposite," Davenport said.
The Advanced Energy Rising Star Award went to Gary Moody, the director of state and local climate strategy for the National Audubon society and a longtime supporter of renewable energy. Finalists included Jennah Denney of Today's Power, Beau Blankenship of Entergy, Keaghan Economon of Today's Power, Nick Gorden of Shine Solar, Francisco Jung with Solar & Renewable Power Systems, and Adam Ness of Entegrity.
Today's Power, led by President Michael Henderson, took the Advanced Energy Business Innovation Award. Finalists were Shine Solar and Entergy Arkansas.
The Ron Bell Advanced Energy Leadership Award was claimed by Dave Wallace, the Republican state senator from Leachville who ushered the Arkansas Solar Access law into the books at spring's legislative session. Wallace, a veteran combat pilot in the Army, recalled going to Arkansas State University with the man the award is named for, Ron Bell. Bell, also a former Army officer, was an early leader in state energy efficiency, renewable power and sustainability.
Finalists were Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan; Kurt Castleberry, Entergy Arkansas' director of resource planning; and Ed Tinsley, CEO of Bernhard, a full-service engineering firm with an emphasis on energy efficiency based in Little Rock.
Wallace recalled his first lesson in the importance of energy efficiency 47 years ago, when he was a "hotshot" pilot newly home from Vietnam, joyfully driving a Mercury Cyclone GT that got "about six or eight miles per gallon," by Wallace's estimate. "Then the oil crisis hit" after an Arab oil embargo, and Wallace "went from that GT Cyclone to a five-shift Opel Cadet," which Wallace said he would drive to work each day, "crying all the way to work."
He said he never forgot that energy crisis, or the importance of constantly looking "for an abundance of energy." He played down his role as sponsor and wrangler of the solar access bill, instead applauding another of the day's speakers, Ted J. Thomas, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, which oversees state utility regulation.
"Ted Thomas got this bill through," Wallace said. "He had the expertise to get both sides to see what this needed to be."
The event's keynote speaker, Karl R. Rabago, a former Texas utilities commissioner and U.S. Department of Energy official, predicted that renewable energy, now far less than 1 percent of electric power consumed domestically, will soon be a major player in the energy mix.
Niebaum noted the job impact energy efficiency and renewable power are already having, including 15,000 positions energy efficiency positions in Arkansas, along with a fast-growing number of solar installation jobs.
The event's signature sponsor was Audubon Arkansas. Partner sponsors were Energy Efficiency Design & Development, Stitt Solar, Entegrity and Today's Power. Program sponsors included AOG, CLEAResult and Oklahoma Gas & Electric. Other sponsors were Bernhard, Black Hills Energy/Swepco; Centerpoint Energy, Lightwave Solar & Seal Solar, Powers of Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The awards program was sponsored by Insurica.