Ted Thomas, Solar Power And the Cooperative View

Ted Thomas, Solar Power And the Cooperative View
Ted Thomas, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission

Ted Thomas is going out as chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission with a bang, bang, bang.

After eight years as the state’s top utility regulator, the lanky 57-year-old lawyer is heading for the private sector after Sept. 30, probably as a consultant, even though he concedes it’s possible his reputation as a Republican champion of solar energy might eventually land him a post on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Some of Thomas’ parting shots made headlines, like his language on certain electric cooperatives erecting obstacles to interconnecting rooftop solar arrays and other renewable projects. Now six of those cooperatives have fired back, indirectly, laying out what they say are legal obligations to protect their grid by demanding million-dollar insurance policies and other requirements from members with solar systems.

Thomas had accused Petit Jean Electric of Clinton of “wielding the billy club of the monopolist” against Samuel and Belinda Lister of Fairfield Bay, who were featured in a front-page Arkansas Business article on the interconnection dispute in March. Bang!

Thomas also accused Petit Jean Electric’s legal team of lying about him and using legal tactics out of AMC’s crooked lawyer series, “Better Call Saul.” He recused himself from an interconnection inquiry involving Petit Jean, declaring he didn’t want his presence in the case to present any grounds for appeal, and insisted that Petit Jean had always received fair rulings from him and the commission, including a recent rate increase. Bang!

The former state representative for west Little Rock and parts of Pulaski County told lawmakers in March that solar arrays left unconnected by cooperatives “stand as a warning to the person that made the risk [putting up solar panels] and to their neighbor: Don’t go down this road: You will be punished, you will be fee’d, you will be litigated.” Bang!

In a statement on his resignation, Thomas said the looming end of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration weighed on his decision, but so did frustration from years of struggling with utilities over renewable power, which he sees as a crucial hedge against natural gas price volatility. Gas has surged ahead as America’s top fuel source for generating electricity, providing about 38% last year, compared with just over 22% from coal, 19% from nuclear plants and 20% from all renewable sources combined.

And since Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine took Russian fuel out of Europe’s mix, futures prices have soared. Gas that sold for $1.66 per unit in June 2020 was going for nearly $8 on Sept. 20. 

“It is going to be bad this winter when the first bills come out after the home heating season begins,” Thomas said in his statement. “The state’s solar policy is under attack.”

As Thomas was tending to his last weeks at the PSC, a news release went out from six of the state’s distribution cooperatives: Petit Jean, Clay County Electric, Rich Mountain Electric, South Central Arkansas Electric; Southwest Arkansas Electric; and Woodruff Electric.

They offered a rationale for the solar-related insurance and interconnection rules, saying federal loans require protection of “Uncle Sam’s collateral,” the cooperatives’ electricity infrastructure.

Many cooperatives still have such loans through the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they say the loan provisions require the “key collateral” of the cooperatives’ “substations, transformers, lines, poles, etc., commonly called ‘the grid.’”

The loans require adherence to federal laws protecting the grid, including one mandating that cooperatives with active loans obtain hefty insurance coverage and an application fee from “anyone who wants to hook up” their own generation systems to the electric grid.

The cooperatives insist that some solar systems could blow up “nearby transformers and start a fire in the neighborhood,” and problems with older transformers coping with power flowing both to and from the grid have been noted. Solar array fires are exceedingly rare, surveys have found, though no government statistics are readily available.

“What these electric cooperatives who are borrowers from Uncle Sam are doing in requiring insurance and an application fee from solar and wind folks is no more than what Uncle Sam requires them to do under federal law to stay in good standing or compliance with the terms of their loan agreement with the federal government,” the news release said. “The cooperatives are not requiring the insurance policies to discourage members from ‘going solar.’ The cooperatives are simply complying with federal law and their loan documents.”