Keeping Eye on Sparrow, and Solar Power's Ascent


Keeping Eye on Sparrow, and Solar Power's Ascent
Katie Laning Niebaum (Kerry Prichard)

The last two times we saw Katie Laning Niebaum, about a year apart, she was promoting Arkansas solar power in the spring sunshine.

A year ago at the Capitol, she was executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, but on the cusp of leaving that job to deliver twin girls.

Last week, little Charlotte and Abigail Niebaum were at home, doing what 9-month-olds do, and mom was back in the energy game, working part time for a group that has established itself as a somewhat unlikely policy titan in solar power: the Audubon Society.

Niebaum, who also has a 5-year-old son, was at Audubon’s Granite Mountain headquarters and nature trails Tuesday as the center dedicated its own solar array, becoming the state’s first nonprofit fully powered by renewable energy. She said it was “good to reconnect with old friends and help in the fight.”

But the hero of the hour was Gary Moody, the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” of Arkansas solar policy, according to an introduction by Arkansas Audubon board chair Anna Warwick Riggs.

Interim executive director of Arkansas Audubon for a year and a half, Moody rose last year to state and local climate policy director for the national society. A vigorous voice last year in persuading the Arkansas Public Service Commission to keep a near-retail rate for the electricity that solar power customers put onto the grid, Moody was also a fierce advocate for 2019’s Solar Access Act.

That law, along with bolstered net metering, was key to $250 million in Arkansas solar projects now online or coming, said Bill Halter, the former lieutenant governor who’s now CEO of Scenic Hill Solar of North Little Rock. The legislation allowed nonprofits, schools, governments and water districts to enter third-party solar services deals to reap federal clean energy tax benefits. It also allowed larger net-metered solar plants.

Halter went from Tuesday’s Audubon ribbon-cutting to a groundbreaking Wednesday in Cabot, where Scenic Hill is building the state’s first large net-metered system for a non-taxed organization, Central Arkansas Water. The 500,000-customer public water utility will offset 20% of its electricity use with solar power from the 4.8-megawatt array, which promises 12,000 panels covering 30 acres on Richie Road. The plant is the first PSC-approved net-metering facility bigger than 1,000 kilowatts, and will be about 10 times the size of the larger net-metering arrays allowed under pre-2019 rules.

“Without the passage of Act 464 two years ago projects like this and others across Arkansas would not exist,” Halter said. “We are fashioning economic development out of nothing, by using the collective determination, expertise and grit of folks like David Wallace and Gary Moody.”

Wallace is the Leachville Republican state senator who sponsored the Solar Access Act. He, Moody and allies like state Rep. Denise Jones Ennett and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, who represent Granite Mountain, “took on a tough fight and they won,” Halter said. “They recognize there will be more fights in the future, but I know every one of them is up for it.”

Moody and Niebaum are tracking renewable energy legislation through the current session of the Arkansas General Assembly, and on that mission they have a new comrade, Danielle Hoefer. A former PSC attorney, Hoefer started last week as Audubon Arkansas’ policy manager, another testament to the society’s commitment to renewable power.

One bill they’re watching is HB 1787 by Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, which would overrule the net-metering ruling and cut rates for electricity sent back to the grid.

Fite told Arkansas Business that non-solar customers are subsidizing solar ratepayers by getting more for their excess power than utilities would pay for wholesale generation. Moody disagrees, pointing to studies that find a net benefit to utilities for solar production, which often cuts the need for costly peak-demand generation in the summer.

He figures Fite lacks the votes to pass his bill, but might run it through the legislative process just to make his points.

Ultimately for Moody and Audubon, solar adoption is for the birds: Renewable power combats climate change and habitat destruction.

“This project is about living our values,” said Moody, who noted Audubon’s 2015 determination that climate change posed the greatest challenge to North America’s birds.

“We knew that if we were going to do our job to protect birds and the places they need, we also have to change the way we make and produce energy. … It was imperative for us to do our part to help the birds live and thrive.”