Lauren Waldrip was talking from her Tesla after recharging it on the road, ready to discuss her association’s priorities at a metaphorical crossroads for solar power development.
Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, took note of change at the top of the Arkansas Public Service Commission and news of Entergy Arkansas’ largest solar energy project to date and reviewed the association’s priorities for the coming months.
Make that priority, singular: Securing an extension of the state’s “grandfathering” provisions that lock in rates for solar systems, guaranteeing a stable price for power produced by those arrays over their lifetimes.
“We are so laser-focused on that, you know, if that’s not extended, then there’s really nothing else to focus on,” said Waldrip, calling it the association’s “only policy priority as of now.”
Conservative estimates say a billion dollars’ worth of solar projects are waiting for the PSC, which oversees public utilities, to advance a proposal to extend the price stability guarantee through 2040. A public meeting on sending that plan to the Arkansas Legislative Council, and then presumably on to the governor, is set for Oct. 27.
“You couldn’t get a new customer to do a project as of today” because of the uncertainty around grandfathering, Waldrip said. “We have to close the loop on that. The University of Arkansas has a huge RFP [for solar power] out right now. Northwest Arkansas National Airport has a project that they’re starting right now, but these projects are coming to a screeching halt until we can get some certainty of what the guarantee will look like.”
Just as a set mortgage rate offers homeowners budgeting stability, a rate guarantee for utility net metering customers lets them know when they can count on their systems paying for themselves. Without it, the industry is lost, Waldrip said.
“It’s good policy, and it’s something other states have extended indefinitely,” she said. “Any sort of investment, whether it’s in this industry or another, requires that certainty, and grandfathering provides that in this case.” Without the extension, the guaranteed rate will expire at the end of the year.
Waldrip said there’s no opposition to grandfathering, just some confusion — even among lawmakers who must ratify any extension — on distinguishing between grandfathering and net metering. Waldrip has been taking some pains to lay out the differences.
“There are differing opinions on what net metering should look like, but there is no good reason to oppose grandfathering,” she said.
“Net metering is just the rate that you receive for the power you generate, and in Arkansas that happens to be 1-to-1. [The rate paid for solar power put onto the grid equals the retail rate customers pay for their power.] That is very attractive; it’s why we’re seeing lots of business interest in keeping the rate, whatever it is, stable over the life of these projects.”
Waldrip congratulated Entergy Arkansas for gaining PSC approval to build Driver Solar, a massive 250-megawatt array in Osceola to provide power for U.S. Steel’s Big River plant and a new steel mill under construction nearby.
The 2,100-acre project, by British developer Lightsource BP, is expected to be finished by late 2024. “Solar power is an established tool in the generation tool kit,” Waldrip said. “Entergy is a perfect example, and they’ve been 100% renewable in all their new generation projects in the past few years. We’re glad they’re continuing that.”
Her association is set for its annual policy conference Wednesday at the Clinton Presidential Center. Speakers will include Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a renewable power advocate, and Ted Thomas, who resigned effective Oct. 1 after eight years as PSC chairman.
Waldrip is looking forward to working with Katie Anderson, Thomas’ successor in the PSC chair. The attorney from Scott will serve out Thomas’ term, until 2027.