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Big and Small Solar Projects in Arkansas Follow the SunLock Icon

7 min read

“Good Day Sunshine” blared over the loudspeaker, followed by “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Walking on Sunshine.”

Time to feel good? Absolutely, for Entergy Arkansas CEO Rick Riley and Armando Pimentel, CEO of NextEra Energy Resources, who were breaking ground last week on Arkansas’ largest solar installation. The 81-megawatt utility-scale array near Stuttgart is expected to come on line before year’s end.

The bright sun glinted off stainless steel hard hats worn by Riley, Pimentel and other officials as they turned the earth, and every speaker at the groundbreaking brought up the sunshine. Stuttgart Mayor J.W. Green even thanked the Almighty for it in his invocation. Soon, 350,000 solar panels will sprout on 475 acres of former Arkansas County rice fields, providing power for 13,000 homes.

Meanwhile, 600 miles to the northeast, crews from Scenic Hill Solar of North Little Rock are installing solar panels on the roof of a L’Oreal cosmetics plant in Florence, Kentucky. Scenic Hill, led by former Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, cut the ribbon last month on a multimillion-dollar array at L’Oreal’s North Little Rock plant.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Seal Energy Solutions of Little Rock is working the small side of solar, partnering with Habitat for Humanity to install small rooftop units on “tiny houses,” starting with two new 700-SF homes in the Baring Cross area of North Little Rock.

“No matter what the scale is, solar makes sense economically,” Seal Energy CEO Josh Davenport said as his team put a three-panel, 1.08-kilowatt solar unit atop a Habitat of Humanity home on Frank Street opposite Vestal Park. “Solar is perfect for low-income housing, and particularly for these homes built by Habitat, which are already hugely energy efficient. It works for a tiny house, for a big factory like L’Oreal and for homes and businesses in between. Look at the numbers. Now anybody can afford solar.”

Regulatory Uncertainty
These are promising times for solar projects big and small, industry leaders say, even as the new administration in Washington focuses on reviving fossil fuels. But Arkansas solar leaders say the industry here is hobbled becase rules for home power generation are unsettled. Until a group working on net-metering for the state Public Service Commission presents its suggestions for rates and tariffs in September, those doubts will remain an issue, said Frank Kelly, a Little Rock financial planner and solar consultant.

While total solar numbers in Arkansas are hard to come by, Kelly says fewer than 600 home and small-business solar arrays in the state use net metering, the system that lets utilities give customers credit for the power they generate. But vendors like Kelly and Davenport see vast potential as costs fall.

“I agree with Frank that we’ll know more once the PSC report is out in September. But for now, people have a chance to install solar and be grandfathered in under the present rules and lock in their rates for 20 or 25 years,” Davenport said.

Heather Nelson, Seal’s president and COO, said she and her 47 employees were pleased to demonstrate solar’s value even on the smallest of homes. “It’s clean and affordable, and we are proud to join forces with Habitat for Humanity in our backyard. We’re testing how these panels perform, and seeing if they’ll be practical in most or all the homes Habitat builds. We are thinking these units might cut utility bills to next to nothing.”

Habitat’s volunteer labor builds housing for qualified low-income homeowners, using paid contractors only for specialties like electric, plumbing and heating and air. The homeowner gets a house with a small mortgage covering the cost of materials, and in the case of the Frank Street houses, solar units accompany LED lighting, Rheem heat pumps and heavy insulation. The central Arkansas Habitat group, led by Director of Development Justin Buck, has built or rehabbed 170 homes since 1989.

John James, construction manager on the side-by-side two-bedroom houses on Frank Street, said he has overseen 28 new-construction homes for Habitat over the past six years. “These are all very efficient, Energy Star 3, with insulation in the walls and attic,” he said. “These are built better than some of the million-dollar houses in Chenal.”

Seal Energy initially built its business on efficiency retrofit projects. “It’s the heart of what we do,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t make sense to put state-of-the-art solar on a leaky building.”

Kelly, who leads SolarSource Consulting and is chairman of the Arkansas Renewable Energy Association, praised Seal’s work with Habitat but said many worthy projects are hindered by the state’s ambiguous attitude toward renewable energy. Lobbying by utilities and the state’s electric cooperatives keep the rooftop solar industry “limping along,” he said. “I tell people if you’re in the solar business in Arkansas, you’re lucky to be in business.”

He said less than a tenth of 1 percent of potential customers buy systems, but that a cloud-based system he developed a decade ago using satellite technology had made the quote-making process simple. “Just call up, answer six questions and you’re set,” he said.

Arkansas’ sunny landscape ranks as the country’s 16th-best solar resource, he said, but the state is 50th in installed solar capacity. “In Louisiana there are probably 50,000 net-metering homes and businesses,” Kelly said. “I chalk the difference up to the resistance and lobbying power of Arkansas utilities.”

Economical and Beneficial
Kelly gave credit to Entergy for its Stuttgart project, which CEO Riley said would enhance one of the “cleanest energy production portfolios across the country.”

NextEra, of Juno Beach, Florida, is building the array and will sell its power to Entergy under a 20-year power purchase agreement. The exact cost of it is under seal by the PSC, but commission Executive Director, John Bethel, called the solar plant “economical and beneficial,” adding that the price would “compare favorably” to power generated by coal or gas.

Kelly said utilities will embrace solar only if they own it. “In the trenches these guys normally get what they want, and it’s all about protecting their monopoly position.”

Kelly teamed up with Bill Ball of Little Rock to create Arkansas’ first “meter aggregation facility,” Bearskin Solar Center in Scott. “It’s a great policy the PSC put in place in 2014 where customers can own their own solar panels at a large common array. Their meter at Bearskin will correspond to their meter at home, and Entergy will credit the power generated against the power they’ve used.”

L’Oreal’s Commitment
L’Oreal is one of central Arkansas’ largest industrial employers with 500 workers at its North Little Rock plant. Its projects with Scenic Hill Solar are part of a commitment to operate U.S. operations completely with renewable power.

At the North Little Rock site, where Scenic Hill installed 3,600 sun-tracking panels outside the 450,000-SF plant, the array is the state’s third-largest commercial solar plant, providing 1.2 megawatts and cutting carbon emissions by 556 metric tons per year, the company said.

Scenic Hill is installing 5,000 panels at the Kentucky plant.

“We have achieved and even exceeded our target of a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions four years ahead of schedule,” L’Oreal Chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon said, noting that those environmental gains, the result of a program the company calls Sharing Beauty With All, came as its cosmetics production increased by 29 percent.

Halter wouldn’t put a price on the L’Oreal projects, his company’s first undertakings, but he said the installations would provide $7.5 million worth of electricity over 30 years.

“We’re pleased that we met all our objectives,” Halter told Arkansas Business. “We finished ahead of schedule with better production than even we anticipated. We used an Arkansas-based electrical firm, B&K Electric of Benton, and we look forward to doing more projects with them. We had planned on delivery to L’Oreal for July, so we were way ahead of schedule.”

The Kentucky array will provide 1.42 megawatts of power, making it the largest commercial solar operation in that state. “The combined emphasis for companies is that they get the benefit of sustainability along with the understanding that solar power is cost-effective,” Halter said. “We’re excited not just about the Florence project, but also about discussions under way for further projects inside Arkansas and around the country.”

OECC Catches Rays, and Recognition

Several of the state’s electric cooperatives have ventured into solar power over the past several years, with Ouachita Electric Cooperative leading the way by distributing about 12 megawatts of power from a 151,000-panel array at Highland Industrial Park in Camden.

That installation, which largely serves the Aerojet Rocketdyne defense plant nearby, also gives OECC a cushion at times of peak power demand.

Last month the cooperative, which serves about 9,500 homes and businesses in south Arkansas, was named as one of the top 10 power companies nationwide for providing solar energy to customers per capita.

OECC provided 1,282 watts of solar power per customer, ranking it fourth among U.S. electricity providers by that measure, according to the Smart Electric Power Association.

The No. 1 solar provider was the city utility of Palo Alto, California, at 2,753 watts per customer. In February, Palo Alto approved a contract providing some of the lowest-cost solar power ever negotiated in the United States, a price of 3.67 cents per kilowatt-hour in a 25-year deal with Hecate Energy of Nashville, Tennessee.

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