With two of Arkansas’ five coal-fired energy plants set to retire in the next seven years, electric utilities are looking for ways to bridge the generation gap.
Part of the answer is clearly solar power.
Entergy Arkansas, the state’s largest utility serving about 725,000 meters, has three major solar plants under construction and two others in development. They will help offset the loss of the two coal plants, which Entergy majority owns: White Bluff in Redfield, to be retired at the end of 2028, and Independence in Newark, closing at the end of 2030. Together, the plants have a capacity of about 3,500 megawatts, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.
The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas also have a new large-scale solar facility in Augusta and are planning another in Crossett. But the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives and their wholesale power supplier, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., fear committing too readily to intermittent power. They favor sources that can deliver regardless of whether the sun is shining.
As 35% owners, the co-ops hate to see the Newark and Redfield plants go. The closings were part of a settlement of a lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Air Act.
AECC “is exploring all options to ensure the level of affordability and reliability that Arkansans deserve,” spokesman Rob Roedel said. Arkansas has some of the nation’s lowest electricity rates, and AECC worries that costs will rise without coal generation, especially during peak-use times like this summer’s heat wave.
“AECC is concerned that our state and the nation are headed to a reality of increased costs and decreased reliability with the retirement of generation resources like White Bluff and Independence,” Roedel said. The co-ops also object to “the constraints the federal government is putting on new and existing generation resources,” he said.
Nevertheless, AECC has no public plans for more coal generation, and it recently completed Woodruff County Solar in Augusta, where it shut down its natural gas-fired Bailey Generating Station in 2020.
“The intermittent energy produced by this [solar] facility will supplement our mission-critical baseload generation resources,” AECC CEO Vernon “Buddy” Hasten said.
Several of the state’s 15 municipal power utilities also own small stakes in the coal plants set to close, and some have solar and even hydrogen projects on the drawing board.
Entergy Looks to Sun
As owner of Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville, the state’s only nuclear plant, Entergy Arkansas has enough baseload capacity to readily adopt new solar fields. About 65% of its power comes from either Nuclear One or Grand Gulf nuclear in Mississippi, and 70% of its portfolio is emissions-free, according to William Cunningham, the utility’s new director of resource planning and market operations.
“We’re probably around 65% nuclear, about 17% natural gas and about 14% coal,” Cunningham said. “We do some [wholesale] purchases from MISO [the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a regional grid operator], and about 2% of our generation is solar.” Another half a percent is hydroelectric.
Those figures do not include customers who signed up for Entergy’s Green Promise program, which gives subscribers a share of 100 megawatts of set-aside renewable energy.
The utility has three operational solar power plants, some owned by Entergy and others by developers selling power to the utility under purchase agreements. They are near the 82-megawatt Stuttgart Solar Center, the 100-megawatt Chicot Solar Center near Lake Village and the 100-megawatt Searcy Solar project in White County.
“And we’re adding much more solar,” Cunningham said.
Next will be Walnut Bend, in Lee County, a 100-megawatt resource to come online in the middle of next year. “And we have what we call West Memphis, a 180-megawatt resource that comes later next year, and of course Driver Solar, 250 megawatts located next to Big River Steel’s new plant site in Osceola.”
Driver, a $327 million project, will provide more than 40% of the power needed for the new $3 billion Big River 2 steel plant, the state’s largest economic development project ever. Officials with U.S. Steel Corp. of Pittsburgh, Big River’s parent company, said access to the emission-free energy helped them select Mississippi County for the next-generation steel mill.
Lightsource BP, a subsidiary of BP, developed and acquired financing for the project. It is using 650,000 solar panels made by First Solar of Arizona; Moss & Associates of Fort Lauderdale is the general contractor.
Two other Entergy solar projects await Arkansas Public Service Commission approval.
“We’ve got one called Flat Fork Solar, a 200-megawatt facility that will be a PPA [power purchase agreement] with NextEra Energy” in St. Francis, Lee and Monroe counties, Cunningham said. NextEra says the $264 million solar field will provide 300 construction jobs and $20 million in local taxes over 30 years. “We have another one, Forgeview [near Blytheville], another 200-megawatt purchase agreement with NextEra.
“So that’s 400 megawatts of additional renewable purchases out there,” Cunningham said. Entergy Arkansas also put out a request for proposals last year for another 1,000 megawatts of renewable power. “We’re in the process now negotiating with vendors for all the projects selected through that.”
Amazon and Municipals
NextEra Energy Resources, of Juno Beach, Florida, an affiliate of Florida Power & Light, is the world’s largest operator of solar and wind power plants. It is also building a solar facility near Clarkedale (Crittenden County) to provide power to Amazon and some of the municipal utilities that owned portions of the Independence and White Bluff plants.
The Big Cypress Solar plant, going up on nearly 1,600 acres that NextEra bought in Crittenden County in 2021, will provide 180 megawatts — 120 to Amazon, 40 to Jonesboro City Water & Light and 20 to West Memphis Utilities.
“Regarding the White Bluff and Independence plants, those sites are ideally suited to be repowered with a huge amount of solar energy,” said Lauren Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. “Those plants are scheduled to come offline in 2028 and 2030, and are owned jointly by Entergy and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, along with small shares by municipal utilities.”
Waldrip urged the utilities to use incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act of 2021 to leverage replacing the lost coal generation. “Our cooperatives and investor-owned utilities should be well aware of these funds and take advantage of them during the energy transition to save ratepayers money.”
Cunningham said investor-owned Entergy is working with minority partners in the coal plants to find cost-effective ways to replace them. “We’re thinking through this to bring the right set of technologies, depending on everybody’s needs,” he said, noting that Entergy Arkansas is leaning toward solar, battery and wind, “while others may be looking more to dispatchable types of units.” He acknowledged the possibility of using incentives, perhaps through provisions of the IIJA Act.
Municipal utilities like Jonesboro City Water & Light buy some wholesale power but also generally have their own generation capabilities, and solar is becoming a more important element. Clarksville Connected Utilities has solar fields built by Scenic Hill Solar of Little Rock and was Arkansas’ first city to run all municipal operations on renewable power. In May it announced plans to build the state’s first hydrogen production and power plant.
Chris Claybaker, a former Camden mayor who is now a development principal with Syntex Industries of Little Rock, which is partnering in the Clarksville hydrogen plant, called it a $150 million first phase of a project that could become a billion-dollar investment.
Conway Corp., a municipal utility that gets about 20% of its power from the White Bluff and Independence stations, has a 123-megawatt project coming online this month: a 20-year power purchase arrangement with Lightsource BP.
Conway Solar at Happy, named for the tiny White County community near the array, will join Conway Solar at Blaney Hill, a 1-megawatt project at the old Conway landfill that is already producing power.
“These two sources will provide approximately 25% of our electric portfolio,” said Crystal Kemp, the utility’s chief marketing officer. The rest of its portfolio comes from bilateral contracts and MISO market purchases.
“These contracts and purchases come from many generation resources, but we do not have a way to verify the actual [fuel] sources based on how the electric grid works,” Kemp said.
Conway Corp. is committed to a diverse and flexible portfolio “to manage market risks” and “continuously evaluate opportunities aligning with our mission as the generation and transmission landscape evolves,” she said.
Jonesboro City Light & Water built a 13.25-megawatt solar field on about 98 acres in the city, and its 40 megawatts from the Big Cypress project will help offset its 15% share of the Independence plant and its 5% stake in White Bluff.
“We’re looking to maintain diversity with our step into the solar world at our plant here and then the step into the plant down in Crittenden County,” said Slade Mitchell, CWL’s energy marketing administrator. CWL has 175 megawatts of gas turbine generation at a plant in Jonesboro, “but we didn’t have any solar before going into those two projects.”
The city utility will keep evaluating options through 2028 and 2030, Mitchell said. “We believe a combined-cycle natural gas plant might also make sense.”
Arkansas’ Electricity Mix, and Who Owns It
Once king of electric power generation in Arkansas, coal has been declining since the fracking boom early this century made natural gas-fired electricity cheaper.
No new coal-fired power plant has opened in Arkansas since Plum Point Energy Station was commissioned in Osceola in 2010, and public opposition killed plans for a second unit there.
No new coal plants are in the offing, either.
Coal plants majority-owned by Entergy are set to shut down in Redfield and Newark at the end of 2028 and 2030, respectively, leaving just three coal generation sites in the state. Those will be Plum Point, whose minority owners include North Little Rock Electric, the city of Osceola and Piggott Municipal Light, Water & Sewer; the John W. Turk Power Plant in Fulton; and the Flint Creek Power Plant in Gentry.
The Fulton plant is majority-owned by Southwestern Electric Power Co. of Shreveport, a subsidiary of American Electric Power of Columbus, Ohio, a major U.S. coal generator that is also shifting to other fuels. The Gentry plant is 50-50 owned by Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. and Swepco.
“Most of the coal-fired power plants [in Arkansas] are co-owned by either Entergy or Swepco/AEP and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, with a smattering of small slices owned by municipalities and other entities,” said Lauren Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association and a supporter of solar, wind and nuclear power, which do not emit carbon into the atmosphere.
There are no wind farms now in Arkansas, though the cooperatives and others import wind energy. The state’s first wind turbine field, Nimbus, is being developed in Carroll County by Scout Energy of Colorado. “This project would generate an estimated $28 million in tax revenue for the county over the life of the project,” Waldrip said.
Entergy Arkansas is proud that about 70% of the power it provides is from emissions-free fuels, largely Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville. Only 14% of its 2022 portfolio was generated from burning coal.
For all utilities, natural gas led all fuel sources in Arkansas power generation last year, accounting for 38% of the total, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas generation surpassed coal for the first time in 2020, but briefly fell behind again in 2021 as extreme weather drove volatility in natural gas prices.
Five of the state’s 10 largest power plants by capacity are gas-driven, led by the 2,200-megawatt Union Power Station near El Dorado, which is owned 25% by Entergy Arkansas and 75% by Entergy Louisiana. Nuclear One, wholly owned by Entergy Arkansas, provided 22% of in-state net generation last year.
The bulk of the rest of the state’s power load was provided by hydroelectric, solar and biomass generators.
The state also has some of the lowest electricity rates in the country, ranking in the top 10 states for affordability.