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Here Comes the Sun, and the Solar Testimonials

4 min read

With spring blooming and solar power installation swinging into peak season, a parade of Arkansans who invested in arrays spent recent days sharing sunny stories. 

Batesville Schools Superintendent Michael Hester told of solar energy savings from an Entegrity-built system that funded raises of at least $4,000 a year for the nearly 250 teachers on his payroll.

Courtney Little, CEO of Ace Glass, spoke of saving $80,000 a year on electricity with a 140-kilowatt array he installed as part of a complete renovation of a former lumberyard near the Little Rock airport that’s now home to his manufacturing and recycling operations.

For former Community Bakery owner and CBI Investments President Joe Fox, solar savings from a rooftop system by Seal Solar of North Little Rock came with an environmental message: “We’re baking with solar!”

And Arkansas Audubon’s Uta Meyer says it’s for the birds.

“At Audubon, everything connects back” to them, said Meyer, including the 35-kilowatt Scenic Hill Solar array that’s set to make the Little Rock Audubon Center in the Granite Mountain community the first nonprofit in Arkansas to be fully powered by sun energy.

Meyer, Fox and Hester spoke at a forum on Arkansas solar power last week, and Little spoke by phone Thursday about what he sees in retrospect as a wise but fortunate business decision.

Little, whose company supplied glass for iconic Little Rock buildings like 300 Third Tower, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Heifer International, got a 60% discount on “an entire container load” of solar panels through business associates.

About six months later, after buying the old lumberyard property on Dugan Street, “we built and renovated the space, and we put a two-acre solar array on the south side” that almost completely powers Little’s efficiency-retrofitted 10,000 SF of office space, a 10,000-SF warehouse and a 25,000-SF shop.

“We’re probably saving 80,000 a year” on what would have been a $90,000 annual cost, he said. “We’re spending less than $10,000 a year” to power an electricity-hungry manufacturing and recycling process. Entegrity helped in the array’s construction, but members of Ace’s 85-employee team finished the panel installation. It helped, Little said, that he had plenty of open property; rooftop installation can be costlier. According to his calculations, the project paid for itself in 30 months.

“Thompson Electric was doing work on the building renovation, so I got to actually do my system with my construction loan in improving that building, which really helped the financing and payback,” Little said. “Thirty months is probably about half of what most people can expect for a payoff on solar. The timeline for solar to pay for itself has been coming down, but a lot of factors went into that.”

One is Arkansas’ policy of valuing solar energy through net metering, which under a Public Service Commission ruling last year requires utilities to compensate solar customers for power they put onto the grid at the same rate they are charged for retail power. Utilities have sought to give solar customers less, closer to wholesale or avoided-cost rates.

But for Hester, the Batesville schools chief, the key to solar success was the Solar Access Act of 2019, which allowed nonprofits, schools and government entities to partner with third-party solar providers on net-metering arrays. Companies like Entegrity, Scenic Hill Solar of North Little Rock and Seal have been lining up nonprofit clients, and schools like Batesville’s are happy with the results.

“Putting students first starts with attracting and retaining good teachers,” said Hester, an Arkansas native who had a long career in school administration in Kansas before taking the Batesville job in 2017. To boost student achievement and retain teachers, he looked for efficiencies and partnerships, and with the school board commissioned an energy audit.

Entegrity found that the 3,200-student district was spending $600,000 a year on utility bills, and computed that the district could save millions of dollars over 20 years with a 1,400-module solar array and new lighting, HVAC systems and efficiency windows.

The savings were stunning, Hester said. 

“We were able to pass record raises for our teachers,” Hester said on Zoom. “Raises ranged from $4,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on teacher experience.” The district went from lagging in state teacher pay averages to the top third of the class. “And Entegrity walked the walk. They showed us what our savings would be and vowed to write us a check if there was any shortfall.”

Fox, who owned Community Bakery at the time, learned in 2018 that he could install a solar system on the bakery roof and fold it into a historic rehabilitation he was doing on the bakery building at 1200 Main Street in Little Rock.

“It’s been very successful,” he said. “It reduced the carbon footprint of Community Bakery, and there’s a savings involved. We have received positive feedback from customers and employees and nearby businesses. Even one of the homeless persons who hangs around told me how cool he thought it was.”

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