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Tracing the Power Lines Behind Amazon Solar

4 min read

Amazon, the world’s largest retail delivery business, announced last month that it was becoming the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy.

But so far details in part of its plan involving solar projects in east Arkansas are about as clear as a dense Delta fog.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said in a June 23 news release that 14 renewable power projects worldwide, including two sun generators in Arkansas, will soon supply power for offices, fulfillment centers and Amazon Web Services data sites.

One of the Arkansas endeavors, Big Cypress Solar, is a previously announced array by NextEra Energy Resources set for Crittenden County. The other, Apple Blossom Solar, is a mystery to local officials, and Amazon isn’t offering clues.

After trumpeting the company’s plan to reap all its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, five years ahead of an original goal, Amazon’s media relations team was tight with answers last week.

“I understand you need more information, but I’m only able to confirm what you’ve probably already read on our site via the news release or website map,” Amazon media representative Lauren Lynch said in an email.

She repeated details already mentioned, like the projection that Big Cypress will produce 282,880 megawatt-hours of power per year and is expected to come online in 2023.

Apple Blossom, which was first identified on Amazon’s online map as a Cross County project, will have 135 megawatts of capacity and is expected to be operational by late 2023 as well.

Cross County Judge Donnie Sanders said on Wednesday that he’s heard nothing from Amazon about any project in his county, and he had no information on any utility-scale solar project.

NextEra, of Juno Beach, Florida, a partner in several large solar projects with Entergy Arkansas over the past decade, confirmed that it will be providing 120 megawatts of power to Amazon from the Big Cypress solar farm, a plant in development north of West Memphis.

NextEra is not involved in the Apple Blossom project, spokeswoman Sara Cassidy told Arkansas Business last week. And while Big Cypress has an expected 2023 completion and a lineup of power customers, no builder had been named and no specific site had been purchased as of last week, she said.

The 180-megawatt, 1,600-acre Big Cypress site also has commitments to sell power to the cities of Jonesboro and West Memphis.

“They’re moving forward with it, and are in the process of issuing bonds,” Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless said in a telephone interview. “It is going to be north of Clarkedale, but they’re being kind of secretive about where the exact location is.”

Wheeless said a loosely defined 1,600-acre parcel of farmland had been approved for rezoning in the Clarkedale area, but he predicted that the precise parcel won’t be made public until land acquisition is complete.

Wheeless and other east Arkansas officials don’t know what solar company is behind the Apple Blossom project, but one strong possibility is RWE Renewables, part of the multinational energy company RWE AG of Essen, Germany.

Jennifer Hobbs, mayor of Wynne, the Cross County seat, said RWE “is wanting to lease 1,200 acres” that include a sliver within the city limits. “They’re bound by contract and can’t tell us who the project is for,” even though a tax abatement is being sought, Hobbs said.

RWE Renewables recently announced a solar project just across the Mississippi from Arkansas, in Shelby County, Tennessee, that will reduce the corporate carbon footprint of Facebook.

The plan calls for a 150-megawatt solar facility that will sell 110 megawatts to Facebook to help power its data center in Gallatin, Tennessee. RWE expects construction on that array to start in mid-2022 and for the plant to start operations in late 2023.

A request for comment from RWE on any involvement in the Apple Blossom array or any other projects in Arkansas drew no immediate response. Several Arkansas solar providers contacted by Arkansas Business said they had no information about the projects.

NextEra’s Big Cypress project is not to be confused with an array it is building along Interstate 40 in West Memphis. That plant, West Memphis Solar, is being built for Entergy and will be the utility’s largest array at 180 megawatts, enough to run 29,000 homes. That project, with an economic impact comparable to Big Cypress, could bring 300 construction and vendor jobs to east Arkansas and generate $17 million in annual local taxes over the life of the project.

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