Co-ops Look to Sun in Woodruff, Ashley Counties

Co-ops Look to Sun in Woodruff, Ashley Counties
Buddy Hasten (AECC)

Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. CEO Buddy Hasten thinks of solar power as a part-time employee, but a valuable one: He revealed in an interview Wednesday that AECC, which supplies wholesale electricity to the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives, is building two solar power arrays to rival the state’s largest.

The cooperative, which serves about 600,000 meters in all, began construction this month on Woodruff County Solar, a 122-megawatt sun facility adjacent to the former Carl Bailey Generation Station in Augusta, and it’s building another 100-plus-megawatt plant in Ashley County southeast of Crossett. That project, Crossett Solar, was developed by Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. of Broomfield, Colorado, a division of RES Group of Kings Langley, England.

The Augusta array is scheduled to begin commercial operation in June 2023, and will multiply the cooperatives’ sun generation tenfold. Solar power made up less than 1% of that mix last year, but wind and hydroelectric sources kicked in more than 20%.

“We’ve got 100 megawatts or more going in at Crossett next year, and Woodruff is 122 megawatts,” Hasten said. “My normal peak load’s about 2,500, absent these big, crazy winter storms. But combined, let’s say those projects turn out about 250 megawatts. Well, that’s 10% of our peak right there.”

Hasten, who feels the cooperatives have been unfairly painted as solar power-resistant, noted that the cooperatives have their own solar development company, Today’s Power Inc. of North Little Rock, and added 25 megawatts of solar capacity just last year. The number of cooperative solar net metering members, he noted, has soared from just 595 in 2017 to nearly 3,400 in 2021.

'Verbal Jousting'

“Mr. Bill Halter and I have had some verbal jousting,” Hasten said, referring to the former Arkansas lieutenant governor who is now building solar installations as CEO of Scenic Hill Solar of Little Rock.

“He says I like to use straw man arguments, but what I would say is this: Europe is about 10 years ahead of us, and those nations were going to go all renewable, all green. Now the price of power in England is $300 a megawatt, and Parliament is having to raise the caps on what utilities can charge.”

Europe, excluding France, has also shut down its nuclear power plants, something Hasten views as a dire mistake.

“When France had to close several nuclear plants last Christmas, there were unexpected outages, and prices were $500 a megawatt in the UK. And what’s the price of gas in Europe right now? Whatever Putin wants it to be.”

He said his cooperative members don’t pay for the cheapest energy available, but rather for the cheapest power that also guarantees keeping the lights on 24/7, 365 days a year.

“A lot of people say, well, if we don’t keep pushing, you guys will get lazy and just want to keep burning coal. OK, there’s probably some truth to that. But we’ve got to be pushed down the trail in a way that makes sense, and that means keeping nuclear power. The only technology we know that’s scalable, controllable and constant is nuclear.”

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