Katie Niebaum is the president of Delta Solar in Little Rock. She joins Bob East and Douglas Hutchings in leadership at Delta. Hutchings was a founder of the firm, and East took a 25% stake this year.
From 2016 to 2020, Niebaum was executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, where she promoted energy efficiency, renewability and member businesses that employed 25,000 people. Previously, she worked in communications and media at the National Restaurant Association. From 2006 to 2011, she was communications director and press secretary for former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
A graduate of Little Rock Central High, Niebaum has a bachelor’s degree in arts and government from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
What is Delta Solar’s mission? Is it more than solar arrays?
Delta Solar was formed to maximize the savings associated with solar installations in Arkansas and surrounding states. We handle all aspects of solar installation design and construction from initial utility bill analysis through long-term maintenance. Education is central to our mission.
There’s a growing list of solar companies. What sets Delta Solar apart?
Delta Solar is focused on lowering the cost of commercial and agricultural installations. The team at our company, founded in 2017, brings together recognized leaders in solar, policy, construction and agriculture. Collectively, we provide more than 20 years of solar experience to what is still relatively new technology when compared to some more established industries. We are probably the only solar company in the state with a Ph.D. on the team (our co-founder and CEO, Douglas Hutchings), so we also go to pretty extreme lengths to ensure every project is optimized for the unique customer’s benefit. We also have strong connections with manufacturers, resulting in favorable pricing, and a team that is committed to long-term relationships.
Your background has been working for trade groups. How do you expect running a company to compare?
It’s an exciting new experience. I get to see the policies I worked to develop (alongside many great partners) be put into action to bring the benefits of solar to Arkansas businesses. I am learning new facets of the industry every day. And I never would have expected words like “modules” and “inverters” to be part of so many of my daily conversations.
Bob East is well known in business, and Douglas Hutchings is a solar scientist. How do you see your role fitting in?
My background in policy development, advocacy and communications is a nice complement to the talents of our leaders and team members. I have worked on behalf of Arkansas’ advanced energy companies as well as one of the nation’s largest business associations, the National Restaurant Association. I also have worn the small-business owner hat as a co-owner of a consulting firm providing specialty services to a variety of clients, from Fortune 100 companies to local nonprofits. I have learned the importance of relationship-building, which is key to any successful organization, both in terms of building and managing a team and providing value to clients.
How are supply chain issues affecting solar development right now, if at all?
We have planned ahead in securing hardware for our pipeline of projects, but we do see a tightening of supply based on manufacturing constraints. The strong relationships we have with manufacturers likely gives us an advantage in this area, which we are always excited to leverage to our customers’ benefit.
Delta is known for its solar projects at businesses and farms. What advantages does the company offer commercial customers?
Solar allows commercial customers to control their utility expenses with dependable and predictable power and significantly reduce their electric bills. One of our clients — a community bank — reported to us recently that its solar facility offset more than $750 of the bank’s monthly electric bill. According to the bank’s president, “If we had that money just sitting around, we would have earned about $70 last month.”
Do you often talk to Blanche Lincoln, the former U.S. senator from Arkansas who was one of your first bosses?
I am fortunate to count Senator Lincoln as a mentor and friend. And now, as a parent to 16-month-old identical twin girls (in addition to our 6-year-old son), I rely on her as a go-to resource as a fellow parent of twins (her sons are now college graduates and young professionals). Her first piece of advice to me: Always make sure each child has her own birthday cake.
The state and federal regulatory environments still favor the industry, but will that advantage disappear? And how will the industry adapt if it does?
Federal tax incentives have played an important role in driving demand for solar. An investment tax credit equal to 26% of the total system cost is available for commercial (and residential) systems placed in service by Dec. 31, 2022. Increasing the tax credit to its previous 30% level for a 10-year period is under consideration as part of the “social infrastructure” conversation in Washington. We will have to see how that plays out.
Regardless, the demand for solar will continue to increase because the economic benefits make sense in most cases. Arkansas policymakers — both at the Legislature and the Public Service Commission — have set policies enabling the growth of our state’s solar industry, which benefits communities across the state. Our nation is transitioning to a clean-energy economy, and Arkansas is well positioned to participate in that job-creation story if we continue to knock down regulatory barriers to future growth.