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Entergy Makes Offer of Synergy to Solar Proponents

3 min read

You may be aware that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is wrangling over rules for putting home-generated electricity onto the grid.

But you probably never guessed that some of the legal arguments would involve roaming ponies, seed horses and “unaltered mules or jacks.” (A jack is a male donkey.)

The government of Pulaski County, which also hopes to install its own solar power system, wants its citizens to be able to lease rooftop solar equipment and still participate in net metering, the method that lets utility customers earn credits for homemade electricity.

This would require a change in thinking by the PSC, as well as a liberal interpretation of the language in Act 827, the 2015 law that amended Arkansas’ solar power legislation and called on the PSC to reshape net metering regulations.

But hold your horses. Where does the livestock fit in?

One element of the PSC review called for opinions on whether Act 827 allows customers leasing equipment to be solar “owners.”

The law states that only “an owner” can participate in net metering. But in a bit of a surprise, the PSC asked for arguments on the issue, and they were due by noon Wednesday.

Will Gruber, representing Pulaski County, filed his response with just over five minutes to spare, at 11:54:39 a.m. Part of his argument, as well as a similar filing by Wal-Mart, gave the proceedings a barnyard flavor.

Pleadings for sticking to a strict interpretation of the law’s language — that net-metering customers must own their equipment — came from Entergy Arkansas Inc., Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., Southwestern Electric Power Co., Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co. and from PSC staff attorneys.

Weighing in on the lessees’ side, along with Gruber and Wal-Mart, were Scenic Hill Solar, the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association and the Audubon Society.

Writing for the county and AAEA, Gruber argued that there are many precedents in Arkansas law that have broadened the meaning of “owner.”

One example is Fraser v. Hawkins, a 1919 ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court involving a stallion that roamed free and killed a farmer’s colt and two mares.

Since a landowner had rented out his farm, along with the stallion, before the horse caused damages, the court ruled that the law’s reference to a livestock “owner” wouldn’t apply to the actual owner of the stallion, but rather to the tenant farmer who had “the right to possession and control of the animal.”

Gruber’s legal logic was that the meaning of “an owner” isn’t as cut-and-dried under Arkansas law as his adversaries might make it seem.

The issue is far from settled.

Reply briefs with responses to Wednesday’s briefs are due this Wednesday. A PSC decision on the far larger issue of what sort of fees or rates utilities may charge for serving net metering customers isn’t expected until late next year.

Entergy Overture
The biggest news for the county in the filings may be that it could find a path to net metering despite Entergy’s opposition to its legal arguments.

Pulaski County owns 14 buildings totaling more than 800,000 SF, and it uses about 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. A customer of Entergy, it spends roughly $1.2 million on power annually and has asked energy services contractors for ideas on structuring a county solar project.

In its filing on Wednesday, Entergy said that regardless of its position that leaseholders cannot be considered owners under the law, it is open to “considering cooperative efforts with Pulaski County and other local governments to determine a path forward that would permit projects” on government property. Entergy suggested that those projects could generate solar electricity “under the commission’s rules regarding net metering.”

On Wednesday, Gruber was intrigued by the offer of cooperation but said he would have to review the document and discuss it with County Judge Barry Hyde.

“When we get some feedback, I’ll let you know,” he said.

In a commentary in Arkansas Business on Oct. 17, Hyde wrote that the county spends about 2 percent of its budget on utilities, and that reducing those costs would allow it to “become an even more effective steward of taxpayer funds.”

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