by Kyle Massey
When Matt Bell or Keith Wingfield build solar power systems into their projects, the top priority isn’t the sun, metaphorically, but the ice chest.
“Solar only makes sense in an energy-efficient environment, so the primary responsibility is the building envelope,” said Wingfield, CEO of River Rock Builders, one of a few local contractors who routinely install renewable power features into new homes. “It’s like a Yeti cooler. We all know a Yeti cooler holds the ice longer, don’t we? And if you put hot sandwiches in, it’ll hold the heat longer too, right? Well, if we build our home like a Yeti cooler, we wouldn’t need to keep filling it with cool air and heat.”
Bell, a partner in Entegrity, also based in Little Rock, applies the same philosophy at commercial properties he builds or retrofits. “It’s better to place overall energy efficiency first, and then apply renewables to the facility after you’ve done everything you need to do from an efficiency standpoint.”
That includes replacing energy-wasting light bulbs with LED technology, installing efficient heating and air-conditioning systems and using advanced windows and improved insulation. “Then we add renewables to that as the cherry on top,” Bell said.
Bell and Wingfield are pioneers in incorporating solar energy into everyday Arkansas projects, but their clients are very diverse. Wingfield builds his customers’ dream homes, and their environmental concerns have to align with financial considerations to make the renewable investment worthwhile, he says.
Bell’s commercial clients, on the other hand, are looking to the bottom line.
“We focus on economics, the financial benefits that building owners will see,” Bell said. “It’s great that this is good for the environment, but for us it comes down to dollars and cents. We’ve become experts on incentives for installing these systems, and we model what the savings are going to be. These are investment-grade decisions owners are making.”
Wingfield emphasizes the environment. “Solar doesn’t make great sense in Arkansas unless you’re committed to green building,” he said. “You’re saying I’m willing to put my money over what I’m investing in the stock market. Instead, I’m investing in the planet.”
Wingfield’s company builds five or six houses a year, almost all custom-designed. “We try to keep it as best we can to manage things personally,” said Wingfield, whose wife, Patty, helps run the business.
In northwest Arkansas, David Stitt reports that the Stitt Group in Rogers is installing solar panels on more than 75 percent of the homes it’s building. “The public is more aware now than ever about the environmental benefits and cost effectiveness of solar on residential and commercial buildings,” he said.
River Rock’s net-zero masterpiece is a residence at 2501 N. Pierce St. in Little Rock, where Bill Ball’s Stellar Sun Natural Environments Inc. provided a $30,000, 11.7-kilowatt solar array. Ball is “sort of the pioneer of solar in Arkansas,” Wingfield said, and the array exemplifies recent technical advances. Its cost was about the same as the array on the first solar house River Rock built, at 63 Woodglen Road in Little Rock in 2011, which produces 7 kilowatts.
A chemistry major from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who partnered in a construction products company before selling it in his early 40s, Wingfield has built high-efficiency houses for two decades, but he’s particularly proud of the net-zero home. “The house has been rated by the United States Green Building Council as a LEED Platinum building, which is the highest rating,” Wingfield said. LEED is shorthand for the council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program.
Bell visits his net-zero showplace daily. His office sits in it.
“This building shows that we practice what we preach,” he said of the 1958 Darragh Co. building-materials headquarters at 1403 E. Sixth St. in Little Rock. “We generate all the power for the operations of the building with solar renewable power, and this is one of the only net-zero buildings in the state.”
The building has electrochromatic windows that tint with a Wi-Fi signal from Bell’s cellphone, along with high-efficiency HVAC systems and all-LED lighting. “This building is in the top 1 percent on energy efficiency based on the Energy Star benchmark,” Bell said. “Our old office in west Little Rock was in the top 1 percent as well.”
Entegrity, which was formed as Viridian, partnered with Nabholz Construction to create Entegrity Energy Partners in 2013. The goal was to turn Viridian’s traditional energy-efficiency consulting into a business that could also “install all the systems,” Bell said. The name of the whole enterprise was changed to Entegrity last year.
“We’re now consulting with several owners wanting to do net-zero buildings throughout the country,” Bell said. “I can’t identify them because of nondisclosure agreements, but we consult on how building owners can become energy independent.”
Building renewable energy systems into new construction has been growing steadily over the past decade, and the number of Arkansas solar generation systems using net-metering billing to receive credit from utility companies soared by 56 percent in 2017, according to utility figures filed with the state Public Service Commission.
As 2018 began, 988 Arkansas homes and businesses had net-metering, up from 633 a year earlier. Most systems are solar, and many were added to existing homes, as opposed to new construction.
From Prisons to Schools
Business has been good on the commercial side, said Bell, who has a background in general contracting and finance.
“We’re seeing price drops and efficiency gains with LED lighting, and now we’re seeing that same trend happen in solar technology, where the installed cost per watt has dropped.”
Recent major projects for Entegrity include a 2-acre, 140-kilowatt solar array for Ace Glass’ new $4 million headquarters on Dugan Street near the Little Rock airport. Ace, led by Courtney Little, bought the 9.9-acre property last year, and at 100,000 SF, the solar-powered space is more than double what Ace had at its old headquarters on Shall Avenue.
The company has also done work at Hendrix College that is expected to save the Conway school more than $200,000 a year. “We’ve started working with the Arkansas Department of Correction on facilities throughout the state, and we just signed a contract with the Batesville School District where they’re going to do solar,” Bell said.
The $5.4 million Batesville project includes a 600-kilowatt solar array, HVAC and water fixture upgrades and 6,200 LED light fixtures. Financing, in accordance with the Department of Energy’s Energy Savings Performance Contracting Program, will use part of the school system’s $7 million in projected savings to pay for construction.
A $5 million project for Pulaski County, which spends $2 million a year on utilities, provided lighting and HVAC improvements, roofing upgrades and water conservation.
Bell said recent tariffs on solar module imports added about 10 percent to project costs, but “that increase is framed against a 30 percent cost decrease overall in the last few years, so it’s not affecting the economics significantly.”
Wingfield also sees a bright future. “Millennials and Generation X and Y are more attuned to renewable goals than the older generations, so as they mature and their wallets grow larger, hopefully they’ll apply that determination, and you’ll see that economics are not the only reason.”