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Solar Power On the Rise in Arkansas

7 min read

There’s nothing new under the sun? A quick glance around Arkansas, where solar power projects are popping up all over, shows just the opposite.

The state’s largest solar array went online in East Camden on March 31, and Entergy Arkansas is partnering in plans to build an even bigger field called Stuttgart Solar that should deliver power within two years.

Last week, Scenic Hill Solar of Little Rock and L’Oreal announced a deal to install 4,000 solar panels at the cosmetics giant’s factory in North Little Rock and 5,000 panels on the roof of a Kentucky plant, a project that will be that state’s largest commercial solar endeavor.

Projects by the state’s electric cooperatives are also underway, and Wal-Mart is aggressively pursuing its commitment to eventually power all its stores with clean power.

“Renewable energy sources like wind and solar can and should play a greater role in creating a balanced energy approach for the state and for our country,” said Bryan Garner, manager of communications for NextEra Energy Resources, which is developing the biggest project in the works — a 475-acre array 7 miles southeast of Stuttgart in Arkansas County. NextEra, which will operate the facility after building it, has a 20-year contract to sell the energy to Entergy Arkansas.

Billing itself as the world’s largest renewable energy producer with more than 21,140 megawatts of solar and wind-generating capacity in 25 states and Canada, NextEra says the Stuttgart project will produce 81 megawatts. That is “enough clean energy to power approximately 13,000 homes,” Entergy spokeswoman Sally Graham said. Construction is expected to start next summer, with power coming onto the grid starting in May 2018.

Construction will generate 150 to 200 jobs, and two or three full-time operators will be needed at the completed facility. “We always look to hire locally, to the extent possible,” Garner said, “and the project will create a significant increase to the area’s property tax base with little to no additional demand on public services.”

He estimated that the plant will produce more than $2 million in tax revenue from state and local sales and use taxes, and “create opportunities for local vendors to provide goods and services during construction, as well as opportunities for maintenance contracts during operations.”

‘Great Benefits’

In south Arkansas, solar electricity started flowing April 1 from a 76-acre field in East Camden, and it has already shown “that there are great benefits for electric utilities to have solar capabilities,” said Mark Cayce, general manager and CEO of Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp. of Camden. OECC serves almost 9,500 homes and businesses in south Arkansas.

On Aug. 4, the day of peak electric demand for OECC up to that point, the 151,200 solar panels at the Highland Industrial Park contributed more than 12 megawatts of power, more than 20 percent of the cooperative’s 52-megawatt load. “That 12 megawatts was just about exactly what the solar plant is rated for,” Cayce said. “The power flows through our system, so it played a significant part in flattening our load curve. These are dramatic results, shaving the load, and it benefits our members by lowering overall costs.”

The $25 million solar installation provides nearly a third of the power used by defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne, which developed the project in partnership with OECC and Silicon Ranch Corp., the owner-operator of the facility. “It’s a unique partnership between a private company, an electric transmission company and its biggest power customer, and all are benefiting,” said Cayce. He said OECC has an interconnectivity agreement with Silicon Ranch, but that the power contract is between Rocketdyne, Silicon Ranch and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.

Cayce said it may sound ironic for a company to try to reduce sales to its biggest customer, but that was precisely the case between OECC and Rocketdyne. “We gave up a percentage of energy sales to our biggest customer, but that was offset by the decrease in our peak demand. They have been able to add jobs, and that’s important to us, and the lower peak helps our other members because it lowers costs.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne committed in July 2015 to adding 85 new jobs and investing $18 million in new buildings, upgrades and equipment at the East Camden plant, where some 600 employees help to produce propulsion motors for Lockheed Martin’s Patriot missile system.

At a switch-throwing ceremony, Michael Henderson of AECC said it would enhance the company’s “non-emitting resource mix,” which includes hydroelectric and wind power. His boss, CEO Duane Highley, said in early September that renewable sources, notably hydroelectric and solar, generate 17 percent of the power delivered by the 17 electric cooperatives in Arkansas.

Cayce said the Ouachita cooperative will soon break ground on a 1-megawatt community solar project in Camden, and that his company’s offices are solar-powered. “We have our own solar project,” he said. “All our power for six months has come from the sun, and that’s something we expect to continue.”

‘Triple or Quadruple Win’

The L’Oreal project will be the first by Scenic Hill Solar, led by former Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, and will further the cosmetics giant’s goal of being a corporate leader in renewable energy. Construction is expected to begin this year, employing about 25 people at each of the sites over four months, and the arrays should start producing electricity in 2017.

Halter, who got involved in the solar industry as a board member for Fayetteville startup Picasolar Inc. in 2014, said the two installations would produce about $7.5 million worth of electricity over 30 years and lower L’Oreal’s carbon emissions by 75,000 tons.

“It’s a great set of inaugural projects for us,” Halter told Arkansas Business on Tuesday. “I’ve characterized these kinds of projects as a triple or quadruple win. Companies get lower electricity prices, and they get predictability. The third win is that clients can meet sustainability goals, and of course customers like products that are produced sustainably.”

L’Oreal will get 10 percent of the power for its 446,695-SF Arkansas plant from a 1.2-megawatt array, and the 687,000-SF Kentucky plant will plug into a 1.5-megawatt facility. The rest of the plants’ energy will come from utility hydroelectric sources.

Credit for Participants

Ozarks Electric Cooperative of Fayetteville, which serves 70,000 homes and businesses in northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma, celebrated Earth Day in April by switching on its own solar generation facility in Springdale. The array was built by Today’s Power Inc. of Little Rock, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. that also handled the East Camden installation. It features more than 4,000 solar panels on a 5-acre site creating 1 megawatt of power, enough for 150 to 200 homes.

But the Ozarks cooperative is delivering the power differently, offering Arkansas members a chance to purchase shares of the solar output through Ozarks Natural Energy, a related company that will provide a monthly credit on participants’ electric bills for each purchased share.

The cooperative promotes the program as a low-cost alternative to individual rooftop solar installations. As electric rates change, credits to participants will change accordingly.

“The program offers members an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of renewable energy without the cost and difficulty of installing and maintaining their own solar panels,” the cooperative said. Spokeswoman Ashley Harris also said the cooperative plans to provide 12 solar panels this year at the Don Tyson School of Innovation, a STEM-focused charter school in the Springdale Public School District.

(See also: Arkansas At Crossroads for Individual Solar)

Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative of Ozark will be switching on a solar project north of Van Buren in the coming weeks.

That array, also built by Today’s Power, will generate enough electricity to power 75 homes. The project “is the first of its kind for Arkansas Valley Electric,” according to CEO Al Simpson, who said the power “will be put straight onto the grid.” He added, “The results of gathering data from this generation facility will assist in determining what type of modifications, if any, need to be made to any possible future solar generation” facilities.

The solar panels in the 500-kilowatt array, which Simpson expects to go online sometime before the end of the month, cover an acre and a half near AVEC’s Van Buren headquarters, in a field once covered in weeds and brush.

Wal-Mart, a major driver of green energy in Arkansas, reports steady progress toward its ambitious goals in renewable energy, which it hopes will eventually power all its operations. It has made environmental responsibility a priority for more than a decade, with a commitment to expand “on-site and off-site solar power, wind power and other technologies to meet our goal of producing or procuring 7 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy by the end of 2020,” according to the company’s 2016 Global Responsibility Report.

“Globally, we have reached 32 percent of our goal of 7 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy globally” by the end of 2020, Wal-Mart representative Ragan Dickens told Arkansas Business.

That is well over the retailer’s renewable energy total for 2014, and more than double the 2012 number.

“We have installed or contracted for more than 2 billion kilowatt-hours from more than 470 projects worldwide,” Dickens said.

“In the U.S. alone, we have renewable projects in operation across 17 states, including more than 365 installed solar projects, more than 50 fuel cells, a large on-site wind installation and a variety of off-site renewable energy contracts.”

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