As buildings, vehicles and other energy consumers transition to electricity, rapidly scaling energy capacity will be necessary to meet the needs of future economic growth in Arkansas and the rest of the United States. Access to combustible fuels has become more difficult (as evidenced by natural gas in Arkansas over the past two decades) while prices for solar, wind and, increasingly, battery storage continue to drop. This transition to electrification continues to require strategic investments and policy decisions to maintain an affordable and resilient energy sector.
The cost of solar and wind has dropped considerably over the past decade, with battery storage following closely behind. Renewables are now cheaper than even traditional sources of energy. Recent policy changes in Arkansas have removed market-entry barriers (without subsidies!) that have helped unlock the solar market, leading to over $250 million in private investment as well as millions of dollars in energy savings. The competition that this created continues to drive innovation and create jobs for Arkansans — and neighboring states are noticing. As the renewable energy sector continues to scale rapidly with existing technologies, incremental changes to policy will continue to open these markets across the country.
The demand side of this equation, while complex, is achievable. Net-zero energy buildings have become increasingly practical, as evidenced by Entegrity’s headquarters in downtown Little Rock and new mixed-use office building in downtown Fayetteville. With an emphasis on affordable energy efficiency strategies and now economically viable solar, net-zero energy buildings can be designed and built at market rates and even create an additional income source for savvy building owners. These efficiency strategies, like shading, building orientation and window positioning, reduce building energy consumption and thereby reduce the amount of solar required to power the building.
Electric vehicles are making headlines daily with every major car manufacturer introducing a line of electric vehicles to market. New brands like Rivian and Canoo are bringing competition to the sector, with the latter company building a new manufacturing plant at the Mid-America Industrial Park in northeast Oklahoma. These new options will only drive down prices for EVs and make them affordable for consumers, leading to some car companies winning and undoubtedly some losing.
The most important technological achievement could be grid-interactive batteries serving as both supply and demand. Today, batteries are capable of storing energy as well as powering buildings and electric vehicles. When the electricity grid can receive energy from batteries, we will be able to achieve the type of energy balance that has long been the criticism of intermittent energy sources.
For example, imagine a fleet of electric buses at your local school district running routes twice a day but sitting idle the rest of the time. On an early August evening when electricity demand is greatest (and most expensive), the local utility can tap into the fleet of bus batteries to reduce its peak demand and provide energy to the community at a lower cost. The school district becomes its own miniature power plant and receives payment from the utility to help pay for the electric buses. This may sound like something from the future, but electric vehicle charging stations like those being installed at Entegrity’s Fayetteville office will have this capability when the grid is ready.
There is no question that combustible fuels made it possible for the U.S. economy to become the greatest in the world over the past century. To maintain this advantage, we must transition to electricity powered by abundant renewable energy and continue to scale our economy into the next hundred years.