Quest for Solar Modules: Could Arkansas Make Hay?

Quest for Solar Modules: Could Arkansas Make Hay?
Douglas Hutchings

Asa Hutchinson, testing national waters this year before term limits usher him out as Arkansas governor, can claim a little credit for helping sway President Joe Biden to waive U.S. tariffs and trade inquiry repercussions involving Asian-made solar panels.

The tariffs and inquiry had created a logjam on sun projects in Arkansas and across the country.

Hutchinson and 18 other governors urged the administration to expedite its review of solar module tariffs and allegations that Southeast Asian countries are exporting Chinese-made panels as their own to skirt customs regulations.

The governor, positioning himself at arm’s length from the Trump wing of the GOP, has supported clean energy and electric automaking in Arkansas, anathema to some Republicans from coal and oil states. Congressional Republicans have also fought incentives for domestic panel manufacturing, including hundreds of billions in clean energy credits.

So Hutchinson’s signature atop the May 16 letter is noteworthy. Just three weeks later, on June 6, the president announced the tariff suspensions and invoked the Defense Production Act to spur panel manufacturing at home.

Solar developers cheered, seeing quicker access to the panels they need to restart jobs. But a backlash came from the few domestic panel makers that exist, bolstered by complaints that bad actors in global trade, like China, shouldn’t benefit from an energy and inflation crisis set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Critics have logic on their side, but politically, Biden had to act. Green energy is the key to the president’s climate goals. And with renewable energy crucially needed to ease power costs, he couldn’t let projects lie idle.

In Arkansas, two major Entergy solar fields are on hold, the investor-owned utility’s West Memphis Solar and Walnut Bend Solar projects. Walnut Bend, near Brinkley, is a 100-megawatt station by Invenergy LLC of Chicago, but construction never got started. The plan was for Invenergy to sell the power plant to Entergy Arkansas after completion this year, but now the timeline is uncertain.

An Entergy representative said this month that it was working with builders and suppliers to rush the projects back on track. The West Memphis project, by NextEra Energy Resources of Juno Beach, Florida, builder of two other Entergy solar sites, is a 180-megawatt plant stalled in Crittenden County.

Against that backdrop, the governors’ letter largely blamed the solar gridlock on a Department of Commerce investigation into the Southeast Asian market and its potential to impose retroactive tariffs. “Almost immediately, solar prices jumped because of dramatic drops in solar product imports, threatening the livelihoods of more than 230,000 American workers who rely on solar jobs and raising energy costs on families,” the governors’ letter said. With no action, it warned, the United States would face a “complete smothering of the investment and the jobs and the independence that we would be seeking as a nation.”

The Arkansas Advanced Energy Association worked with Hutchinson and his staff to get the letter signed and distributed. 

We turned to Douglas Hutchings, who founded Picasolar in Fayetteville and is now CEO of Delta Solar of Little Rock, for a little perspective. Hutchings, who grew up in Mena, has a Ph.D. in microelectronics-photonics from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

“The Delta Solar team has always been a big proponent of advanced manufacturing in Arkansas, and the heartland in general,” Hutchings said last week, adding that uncertainty had dogged Delta’s efforts to explore manufacturing panels in both northwest and central Arkansas. “The retroactive tariff approach was counter to achieving the certainty for stakeholders that is necessary to advance domestic manufacturing in a meaningful way.”

The tariff suspensions “should allow the industry to continue to advance on the installation side while also bringing the need for local manufacturing to the forefront,” he said. “While nothing is certain, we are optimistic about recent conversations on how Arkansas can play a meaningful role.”

Hutchings said he hopes to see the supply chain getting back to “normal” in coming months. “We work hard to ensure we are always in a strong financial position, and we were able to look far down our pipeline to proactively secure hardware for all projects.”

Bottom line? Hutchings said Delta is ready to talk if your business or farm is considering solar investment. “For this calendar year, now is the time to explore and determine if solar is a fit for your operations and goals.”

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