Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is walking on sunbeams this spring, skipping from one public solar power project to another as CEO of Scenic Hill Solar of North Little Rock.
Tuesday morning found him at the Little Rock Audubon Center, cutting the ribbon on a Scenic Hill 35-kilowatt array that made the conservation organization’s 4500 Springer Blvd. headquarters the first 100% renewable energy-powered nonprofit in the state.
On Wednesday morning, he’s scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking of a far larger project, Central Arkansas Water’s 4.8-megawatt sun power station covering 30 acres in Cabot. CAW, the state’s largest water utility, bought the land two years ago in anticipation of the project.
Both the Audubon and CAW arrays were assisted by 2019’s Arkansas Solar Access Act, which allowed nonprofits, schools, government agencies and other non-taxed entities to use third-party solar service agreements to reap federal clean energy tax benefits. It also raised strict upper limits on the size of systems cleared for net metering, the system utilities use to compensate renewable energy-producing customers for the power they put onto the electrical grid. These provisions all helped non-taxed organizations achieve economical access to solar power.
“For over 115 years the Audubon Society has been protecting our birds and our environment,” Halter said. “Scenic Hill Solar is honored to deploy cutting edge technology on behalf of Audubon Arkansas to strengthen that mission. By providing electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions and by utilizing plentiful sunshine, the solar array for Audubon Arkansas sets a standard for environmental protection.”
The state chapter will also benefit from lower electricity prices and protection from future rate increases, Halter said.
“This project and others like it would not happen without a net metering policy in Arkansas,” he said.
In a long-awaited decision last year, the Arkansas Public Service Commission ruled generally in favor of a compensation rate roughly equal to the retail price of power, about 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential customers.
The CAW groundbreaking makes Wednesday “a big day for Cabot,” Mayor Ken Kincade said, celebrating the state’s first PSC-approved net-metering facility with a capacity above 1,000 kilowatts. The 12,300-panel array will be installed at 1300 Richie Road, within the Cabot city limits.
“We are excited about our city having its first solar field and we look forward to many more green energy projects in the future,” Kincade said in a statement.
Central Arkansas owns the property and has leased it to Scenic Hill for construction and plant operations. Under the agreement, Scenic Hill power from the plant to CAW at 5.1 cents per kilowatt hour. The deal includes an initial 20-year agreement and two five-year options to extend. CAW will also have the option of buying the solar system from Scenic Hill after five years.
The plant will infuse $7 million into the central Arkansas economy, Halter told Arkansas Business in December, when the project was first announced.
Tad Bohannon, the water utility’s CEO, called the solar facility “one part of CAW’s ongoing efforts to remain environmentally and economically sustainable for the benefit of customers we serve today and those we will serve in the future.”
The utility, which serves 500,000 customers, uses a great deal of power in its purification processes, Bohannon said, and he praised Scenic Hill’s expertise in “guiding CAW through unfamiliar and uncharted territory to obtain the first PSC approval of a net metering facility this size.”
The Audubon project may be far smaller in scale, but it reflects a significant policy victory for the nonprofit, which is devoted to America’s birds, including efforts to protect their environment and habitats. Audubon Arkansas led a coalition that helped win passage of the Solar Access Act, and it has been vocal about using it for innovations at the Audubon Center, a modern attraction in the Granite Mountain area of Little Rock.
The solar facility dedicated Tuesday will provide all the center’s electricity and will include a Solar Learning Center, where elementary through high school students can study renewable energy and the environment. Other speakers at the dedication event included Anna Warwick Riggs, the board chair of Audubon Arkansas; Gary Moody of Little Rock, the National Audubon Society’s state and local climate strategy director; and two state lawmakers: Rep. Denise Jones Ennett, D-Little Rock, and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.