Solar power fueling advanced energy market in Arkansas
It’s a ray of hope for a renewable energy future in Arkansas as demand for solar power keeps growing into 2020 and beyond.
Bill Halter served as lieutenant governor of Arkansas and is now the CEO of Scenic Hill Solar, a company that builds solar power plants for customers across the Natural State.
He says thanks to improvements in cost, battery storage and other technology, solar power will continue to be a very favorable method of generating electricity in Arkansas. “The solar market in Arkansas is growing very rapidly, and we project that will continue.”
And customers are taking notice of all this. Their interest in solar power is increasing as well. Halter says his company is announcing new clients all the time. “We have seen a tremendous uptake.”
Scenic Hill Solar’s clients include the cities of Hot Springs, Stuttgart and Camden.
Of course, solar power faces obstacles like any other form of electricity generation in Arkansas, Halter says. While the solar market is vibrant, when Scenic Hill Solar is dealing with customers, whether commercial, industrial or municipal, solar power-plant prices usually are a seven or eight-figure expense. With that price, sales usually are not closed immediately. And it takes time to develop and cultivate with clients, according to Halter.
“I don’t think that’s unique to us,” he says.
And of course, the ongoing trade war with China has also had an impact on solar energy production in the U.S. Tariffs have resulted in solar panel prices being higher in the U.S. than outside the country, according to Halter.
“I don’t think anybody can argue it hasn’t increased module prices in the U.S,” he says.
In December, the Arkansas Public Service Commission was urged by attorneys for state regulators, utility companies, the attorney general, businesses and consumer groups to speedily resolve solar power rate issues and deployment across the state.
Solar proponents want to keep a 1:1 net metering policy in effect. The Solar Energy Industries Association defines net metering as a billing mechanism that credits people and companies with solar panels for the extra power they generate and put back into the electrical grid.
Sometimes properties with solar panels installed generate more electricity than they use. That excess power is returned back to the grid, and solar panel owners are credited for it.
Entergy has proposed an alternative billing for net metering customers, but solar proponents want the Arkansas Public Service Commission to keep rates the way they are right now. Halter notes that private sector organizations are spending their own capital for these solar power plants and need certainty for a return on their investment.
Douglas Hutchings is the CEO of Picasolar Inc. Solar is at an interesting place in Arkansas, he says. Despite weekly headlines of new project announcements, 99 percent of the opportunities have yet to be developed.
Hutchings says not everyone realizes the positive economic impact solar power can have in both residential and commercial sectors. And at the same time, policies are being discussed that will either enhance or impede future growth.
“Historically, I was nervous that by the time solar made economic sense in Arkansas, companies with experience in other states would be the ones to dominate. I have been impressed with the local entrepreneurs and companies and their abilities to mostly deliver on strong projects,” Hutchings says.
While he believes solar is a great energy source, the “best” option is a mix of economically viable options, he says.
“Hydro is great, but [it’s] limited in where it can be deployed. Wind is delivering extremely strong economics in some areas, although we don’t tend to have strong wind resources in Arkansas.”
But when it comes to solar, Arkansas has top-tier insolation compared to the other 49 states, Hutchings says. On top of that, Arkansas has abundant land to place solar near the load.
As for what he sees as challenges to the solar industry, Hutchings insists there will be some growing pains. And he points out the many ways to structure solar projects can be confusing for consumers.
Whatever challenges it faces, the solar market in Arkansas is getting busy, says Katie Niebaum, executive director with the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association (AAEA).
“There’s a lot going on in the market,” she says.
The AAEA focuses on policies and initiatives to encourage the expansion of the advanced energy market in Arkansas, including a long list of technologies like renewable resources, storage, electric vehicles, biofuels, geothermal and more.
“We think that Arkansas’ advanced energy has a key role to play in our state’s economy,” she says.
Research from the Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation found that the advanced energy market in Arkansas generates $2.8 billion in economic output and employs around 25,000.
While hydro, geothermal and nuclear all fall under the umbrella of “advanced energy,” solar is a hot topic right now. And for good reason. Niebaum says Arkansas ranks 11th in the nation for solar power potential but is 32nd when it comes to actual install capacity.
Niebaum cites policy barriers such as potential solar customers not having access to third-party leasing. Fortunately, she says, the state legislature passed Act 646 allowing for third-party leasing of solar systems. It went into effect in July 2019. Since it’s been in effect, several school districts, municipalities and counties have announced plans to deploy solar for their energy consumption, she says.
Third-party leasing is beneficial to government entities because they don’t have to own the solar installation. And the third party is able to capitalize on federal tax credits offered and pass those along to the public customers, Niebaum says. Innovations and declining costs are helping to drive the growing demand for solar and both sides of the political aisle have supported legislation for advancement of solar policies, she notes.
“It’s exciting to see such wide bipartisan support in the legislature this year for the Solar Access Act. Our local leaders recognized it’s a tool they can give their communities to help lower energy costs.”
That’s the leading reason why would-be customers seek solar installations — there are economic benefits to be realized, she says.
“Whether you’re a public entity being a good steward of tax dollars or a business or homeowner managing a budget, as folks are understanding economic benefits, we’re seeing an uptick of greater solar adoption across the state,” Niebaum says.
One of these adoptions came from the Batesville School District, which started installing solar panels in August 2018, according to Communications Coordinator Megan Renihan.
The panels were completely installed around December of that same year and worked “vigorously,” generating lots of community interest, she says. “People were intrigued.”
And before the solar panels even went in, the school district was working on saving resources by changing water to low-flow, installing double-pane windows and changing all lighting to LED.
Reception among parents has been fantastic because it’s giving students a way to see innovation and showing ways to decrease carbon footprint. Plus, Batesville schools introduced a core curriculum that goes with the solar panels.
Industry professionals came and taught the school’s teachers who then applied their solar knowledge to instruct students in math, science and engineering. On top of that, students got hands on opportunities with the solar panels. Crews came out to show them how the panels generated electricity by hooking one up in the back of a truck. The panels further benefited teachers
by allowing the district to save money on its electric bill and instead put that money into raises for faculty, Renihan says.
The district has a total of 1,483 solar panels installed, some on top of buildings and some in a field behind the district. Those panels have so far cut the district’s electric use in half, and the school district eventually hopes to be at net zero with no electric bill in 20 years, according to Renihan.
The system governing the panels is “intelligent,” Renihan says. If severe winds move into the area, the solar panels will lay flat to prevent damage. They also contain sun trackers, allowing them to move with the light and be 25 percent more efficient collecting energy.
In addition to the excitement it’s generated in the community, other businesses in town and even other districts across the state are interested in learning more from the school’s solar installation.
“It’s fantastic. We’re super excited about it,” Renihan says of the district’s solar transformation.
Churches are getting in on the solar act as well. This past fall, Little Rock’s Second Presbyterian Church, with the help of Seal Solar, installed 81 solar panels that church officials expect to generate 39,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.