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Phillips County Looks to Sun for FutureLock Icon

5 min read
Helena Bridge Solar 129017 LOC-2017880797
The Helena Bridge spans the Mississippi River, carrying travelers on U.S. 49 into Arkansas. ( Library of Congress)

More than $8.5 million of new and pending utility improvement projects are underway in and around Helena-West Helena. The upgrades for water and sewer service also encompass energy-saving features.

Pieces of the infrastructure puzzle are moving into place to enhance local economic prospects as well as industrial recruitment.

“Companies don’t want to hear about what you’re going to do; companies want to see what you’ve done,” said John Edwards, economic development director for the Helena Harbor and Phillips County.

Construction of the first of two Phillips County solar projects is days away from launching at Helena-West Helena’s municipal airport.

A $1.1 million array will soon begin taking shape on a 2.5-acre site at Thompson-Robbins Airport. The 520-kilowatt development will generate savings for the city’s water and sewer department.

“We hope to start construction during the next 30 days and have it online during the first quarter,” said Sam Selig, director of operations at Little Rock’s Entegrity Energy Partners.

A separate 400-kilowatt project by Entegrity for the Phillips County government is delayed after legal advice that voters need to approve the solar investment.

The solar project is planned to be built as a component of the new $8.8 million justice complex but wasn’t specifically mentioned in the funding measure voters approved in 2017.

County Judge Clark Hall hoped to be tapping into the solar project’s 43% savings in electricity costs before year’s end. But that timetable has slipped into 2020.

At last report, scheduling a special election in April to vote on the solar array is in the works. County residents approved a 1-cent sales tax to exclusively pay for building, operating and maintaining the new 100-bed detention center, which is nearly complete.

“We’ll turn it over towards Thanksgiving,” said Van Tilbury, president of Little Rock’s East Harding Construction Co. “We’re looking forward to seeing what the next phase entails.” The second phase involves converting a 20,000-SF former tractor dealership facility on the 10-acre property for use by the sheriff’s department, courts, 911 dispatch and more.

Helena- West Helena Solar Projects 129017
( Mapbox/Google Maps)

The solar array is earmarked for the eastern end of the county government’s property at 1804 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The project is estimated to cut annual electric costs by $81,380 and save taxpayers more than $2 million during the 30-year life of the solar panels.

Until the delay, Phillips County was poised to become the first county government in Arkansas to move into the solar arena.

Estimated at $750,000, the planned solar array is part of a $1 million energy savings project.

Series of Improvements

Solar is among a string of green improvements for Helena-West Helena Water & Sewer that includes replacing water meters, GIS mapping the water system, LED lighting and HVAC upgrades.

“We’re investing the energy savings in new water meters in addition to paying off the solar project bonds,” said Mayor Kevin Smith.

The solar project, financed as part of a $1.4 million bond issue, is estimated to cut the city’s water and sewer electric costs in half. The savings could go even higher in the future.

“We could expand onto adjoining farmland owned by the city,” Smith said.

Kevin Smith

A $3.5 million loan from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission helped fund the city’s energy-efficiency up-grades and new water meters.

Edwards, the economic development director, reports that talk of a solar farm near the port industrial park continues.

EDP Renewables North America of Houston, Texas, has scouted a 700-acre location on the west side of the state Highway 20 spur.

“There are other companies looking at other sites, but there hasn’t been any real movement in a while,” Edwards said. “There has been interest by several companies in doing a solar farm in Phillips County. It’s all very tentative.” The 4,000-acre Helena Harbor Industrial Complex is in the process of upgrading its water service with the continued build-out of its 16-inch waterline network and construction of a 500,000-gallon water tower.

“We’re piecing together the last funding components of the tower itself, which is estimated to be $2.1 million,” Edwards said.

Funding will be on hand to add 2,400 feet of waterline and do site work for the water tower next year.

A $304,000 grant from the Arkansas Waterways Commission and $57,000 in matching funds from the Helena-West Helena Phillips County Port Authority are backing the work.

John Edwards

“This will be a significant phase in completing a loop around the harbor,” Edwards said. “We’re closing in on about 2 miles of waterline.” The port authority is in the engineering stage of determining how best to build a waste-water system with an eye to-ward meeting future industrial needs.

One option is to develop a pipeline system and connect to the municipal wastewater system 7 miles away. That would require building a series of pipelines and pumping stations.

Another option is to build a wastewater treatment facility in the port complex. Establishing the backbone for the industrial park’s future wastewater needs represents a foundational achievement for Phillips County boosters.

“That will be a very happy day for me once we’re moving and get that part of the project completed,” Edwards said. “That’s the day we have all of the critical enabling infrastructure in place. That will be a significant milestone in the history of the harbor complex.” A water project of a different sort is among the infrastructure improvements in motion in downtown Helena-West Helena.

The wheels are turning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild a portion of the floodwall.

2022 is the goal for completing the $13 million job.

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