What did the big February snowstorm do to the solar panels John Sawyer builds by the thousands at farms in schools in northeast Arkansas?
Absolutely nothing, the Stone Creek Solar CEO reports.
“Our solar panels follow the sun, so unless it snows 10 inches at high noon, that snow just slides off the panels as they tilt from east to west during the day,” said Sawyer, whose vertically integrated company in Jonesboro specializes in solar farms for farms.
“We had absolutely no problems with any of our single-axis systems, and they produced normally during the snow and cold.”
Sawyer, whose 15-employee business promotes itself as Arkansas’ only in-house full-service solar company, also doesn’t understand the political bashing renewable energy took after record cold caused a power generation disaster that left millions shivering in the dark in Texas.
In Texas, as in Arkansas, solar power provides only a tiny fraction of electricity generation, and Sawyer said he sees “no logic” or connection between solar power and Texas’ outages. Texas does rely more on wind power, but problems with natural gas-fired generators were a much bigger contributor to outages.
“The utilities are building more solar than anyone combined, and if solar was bad or dangerous for the grid, I don't think they would be replacing their coal power production with solar,” Sawyer told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview.
Stone Creek, the largest solar installer in northeast Arkansas, specializes in 300-kilowatt to 1-megawatt systems at farms and schools, and has notched record revenue each of the last four years, Sawyer said.
“We’ve gone from zero to hero, but that’s not hard to do with a new business” and a good plan, he said. “We differentiate ourselves from competitors by doing everything in house. Other companies will subcontract out engineering, design work or installation, but we have our own electricians, engineers and installers. Whenever we do a system, we do it all.”
The company has invested in 10 megawatts worth of solar panels to keep in inventory, about 30,000 photovoltaic modules. “We believe in solar enough to stock that many panels, not just for us, but for anybody else in Arkansas that may need them.”
Stone Creek has built a 997-kilowatt system for Caney Creek Farms in Wynne, a 550-kilowatt array for Seeman Family Farms in Cash (Craighead County) and two substantial projects for schools in Monette: a 703-kilowatt project for Buffalo Island Schools and a 355-kilowatt project for the Delta School.
While the sun provides only about 1% of power used by Arkansans, Stone Creek’s systems are catching on with farmers for several reasons, including substantial tax considerations. “Farmers want to hedge their bets against potential future utility hikes, and Arkansas’ net-metering laws allow to do that with a one-to-one credit,” Sawyer said, referring to Arkansas’ rules on how utilities must compensate solar power-producing customers for the energy they put onto the grid.
But the big determining factor for farmers, Sawyer said, is the 26% federal investment tax credit that applies to solar, which has good prospects to endure under President Joe Biden’s administration.
“Farmers can also depreciate the equipment, so after the tax benefits and depreciation benefits, a million-dollar system may be closer to $500,000,” he said.
Sawyer noted he’s no CPA, and doesn’t give tax advice, but those factors are commonly cited by customers, he said. “Those same benefits apply to farms or any type of business,” he said.
Even though the net-metering rates have been upheld by the Arkansas Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, bills the current legislative session are poised to undermine Arkansas’ solar-friendly policies.
“I've never seen something with such little penetration cause such a ruckus,” he said. “I just don’t understand the resistance, but boy, the other side has sure worked hard to ensure that there’s a different message given.”
“There’s one utility in Arkansas, and I’m a broken record on this, that takes full advantage of solar, and that’s Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Camden. Mark Cayce [Ouachita Electric’s general manager and CEO] is a solar power pioneer down there. He’s even been able to lower rates for his members at Ouachita Electric because of solar.”
Stone Creek doesn’t work in the residential rooftop market, by choice, Sawyer said.
“We like to do bigger projects, and for those to be ground-mounted arrays, which are far more efficient because they follow the sun,” the CEO said.