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Sun Power Up Above, Battery Power Below

3 min read

Humankind plainly cannot continue to power itself as it has for the past 200 years and survive. 

Still doubtful? If the climate science and warming data don’t sway you, look to your gut.

The wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and flash floods coming so fast and furious these days should be telling us something. Civilization must seize on models that counter global warming and accelerate its trend away from fossil fuels.

Several strands of this theme weave through Arkansas, where solar energy projects are booming, electric vehicle companies are gaining a foothold, and several projects for extracting lithium from underground saltwater are birthing a potential battery-ingredient industry west of El Dorado.

Let the Sunshine In

A ray of sunshine came from longtime lawyer, utility regulator and solar power advocate Ted Thomas, who has opened a Conway consulting shop after resigning eight years deep into his chairmanship of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, frustrated after long battles with the state’s electric cooperatives over solar power adoption.

He reached out last week by email: “FYI, Arkansas has the most solar and storage in the most recent MISO interconnection queue filing,” Thomas wrote, referring to the lineup of power projects poised to join the electric distribution system overseen by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the nonprofit grid operator with its southern headquarters in Little Rock.

Thomas incorporated his consulting firm with the secretary of state’s office in September as Energize Strategies LLC of Beautyberry Drive, surely one of Conway’s better-named roads.

Solar and storage projects outstripped wind, hybrid and natural gas projects throughout MISO’s 14-state footprint, except for North and South Dakota, where wind predominates. No coal generation projects appeared at all. And all 163 Arkansas projects on the interconnection list are renewable. Eighty-eight proposed solar projects would deliver nearly 20,000 megawatts to the grid, with storage and hybrid projects following at 2,760 and 6,000 megawatts respectively. Six wind projects hold the prospect of 1,710 megawatts of generation.

 “It’s another indication that we have to keep policies that promote renewable projects in the state,” said Arkansas Advanced Energy Association Executive Director Lauren Waldrip.

New Face of Lithium

In the quest to turn south Arkansas’ Smackover brine formation into a source to power the batteries that power all the coming EVs, Standard Lithium of Vancouver, British Columbia, has opened a storefront office in El Dorado and made PR professional Valarie Smith the local public face of the company. “There’s an office open downtown and she keeps tabs on CEO Robert Mintak and [company President] Andy Robinson,” said Bill Luther, CEO of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.

“We had Mintak back here last week on a panel for the Golden Triangle Economic Development Council’s outlook conference,” Luther continued. “The outlook is for the lithium industry to be huge in south Arkansas, and Standard has extended its fields west into Lafayette County.” The company also had good news on efforts to patent its novel process of “mining” lithium from the Smackover brine.

Standard was the first startup on the lithium scene in Arkansas, and two pilot plants attached to the brine-extraction infrastructure of Lanxess AG have proved capable of producing ingredients prized by lithium-ion battery manufacturers. Success in proving the viability of a much larger, commercial plant would be progress for powering emission-free vehicles like those planned by Canoo and Envirotech, now with bases in Arkansas. But it would also aid cleaning up the lithium mining industry itself.

Last week, Standard announced that its patent applications for a “Process for Recovering Lithium from Brine” had received notices of allowance from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. “The scaleable, environmentally friendly process eliminates the use of evaporation ponds,” the news release said.

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