by Katie Laning Niebaum
Camden, Ark., may seem an unlikely place for an energy revolution – a sleepy little town in Ouachita County that, according to the US census and like so many other rural communities in America, had been getting sleepier for years.
Across the country, waning economic opportunities are driving young professionals into larger cities, setting into motion a host of other consequences, such as business closings and deflated property values. But Camden, whose population dropped more than 7% between 2000 and 2010, has recently been at the leading edge of an economic boom for rural Arkansas communities by capitalizing on the power and potential of the advanced energy industry.
Advanced energy technologies include energy efficiency, demand response, natural gas electric generation, solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, electric vehicles, alternative fuels and smart grid. Today, 770 advanced energy companies with a workforce of 25,000 people are doing business in our state, according to research commissioned by the Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation (AAEF). The advanced energy economy contributes $2.8 billion in economic output to Arkansas, per analysis conducted by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Arkansas Economic Development Institute. In many cases, this surge of growth means new life for rural communities.
The earliest and perhaps most visible component of Camden’s advanced energy program is a solar energy project involving local utility Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation (OECC), Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC), defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Silicon Ranch, one of the nation’s leading independent solar power producers. It has resulted in new jobs, lower electricity costs, and momentum for other economic growth opportunities for the community.
The project began generating renewable energy more than three years ago, when Camden — and Arkansas for that matter — was still far from the frontier of energy innovation. But Aerojet Rocketdyne, the nation’s leading producer of tactical rocket motors, committed to grow its Camden operations as long as it could expand the diversity of its energy sources. Doing so would help the company raise its sustainability score and help secure future contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. So, the partners — joined by local stakeholders SAU Tech and the Highland Industrial Park — worked together on a shared vision for Arkansas: “economical clean energy enabling economic prosperity.”
This collective effort resulted in the Aerojet Rocketdyne Solar Farm, the Natural State’s first utility-scale solar project in history. The 76-acre, 12-megawatt (MW) solar array provides extensive benefits to all parties involved, as well as the broader community and region, including but not limited to: creating new high-paying jobs, enabling Aerojet to meet its internal sustainability goals, improving AECC’s carbon footprint and preparing it for any future carbon emission regulations, and reducing the cost of power for all OECC members by reducing the utility’s peak demand.
But the benefits of the Aerojet Rocketdyne Solar Farm go much further, beginning with the construction of the facility that included a $25 million investment by Silicon Ranch, and created more than 150 construction jobs, most of which were filled by local residents. Before construction was complete Aerojet announced an $18 million expansion of its Camden operations that would create 85 high-skilled jobs, and subsequently announced plans to move more than 300 jobs to Camden. And in August the company announced yet another expansion, a $50 million project that will create another 140 jobs in rural Arkansas.
Thanks to the Aerojet Rocketdyne Solar Farm, indirect benefits have multiplied throughout the region. More jobs have meant more residents in the community contributing to the local tax base. By raising the bar on what is possible, the project’s success helped transform the value proposition of the local electric cooperative. It led to additional benefits for South Arkansas -– including a cutting-edge energy efficiency on-bill finance program and rural broadband for starters – and generated momentum for numerous other money saving and job-creating advanced energy initiatives that have followed.
Camden’s solar success also has proven to be infectious. Since Silicon Ranch began operating its project, Arkansas has added more than 100 MW of solar electricity, including an 81 MW facility in Stuttgart. And in March, AECC announced it would buy power from a new 100 MW solar facility under construction in Crossett County. These solar facilities provide critical long-term tax revenues to the rural communities in which they are located.
The story of the Aerojet Rocketdyne Solar Farm is just one of many that highlights how adopting advanced energy sources is a shot in the arm for the Arkansas economy. With innovation and declining costs, projects that incorporate alternative energy solutions continue to drive opportunities in the region, and the wide range of economic, environmental, and community benefits can have a significant impact on our state. They also demonstrate the capacity of rural communities to find innovative solutions to many of the challenges that they face – and to awaken to new opportunities for growth.
Editor’s note: Katie Laning Niebaum is executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.