In early February, Northwest Arkansas Business Journal editor Paul Gatling sat down in the Firmin-Garner Performance Studio at Fayetteville radio station KUAF 91.3 FM with three energy executives to discuss their thoughts on the industry entering 2018.
Peter Main is principal communications consultant for Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO), a division of utilities giant American Electric Power Co. with a little over 117,000 customers in Arkansas.Penny Storms is manager of media and public relations for Ozarks Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit member-owned cooperative that serves more than 70,000 homes, farms, businesses and industries.
Douglas Hutchings is the CEO of Fayetteville startup Picasolar, which works closely with some of the largest solar panel manufacturers and solar equipment manufacturers in the U.S. and world. Picasolar also is working on a plan for a solar module assembly plant in Arkansas.
Gatling: And Douglas, let’s now talk about solar energy in the state. What’s the big picture for you in the solar economy in Arkansas right now and what are the issues that are of most importance to Picasolar?
Hutchings: I think energy, solar energy, has had a pretty interesting year in Arkansas. I know in talking to the local installers it’s been growing, I think, exponentially. Some of the big folks locally, Shine Solar, Richter Solar Energy and then Seal Energy down in Little Rock are all reporting significant interest in deploying solar and don’t see that slowing down in the future.
Obviously, from Picasolar’s standpoint, we’re more on the technology development side so we work with all the major manufacturers as a technology provider. And so we’re working with … most of these manufacturers are overseas, and so we’re still looking at ways to implement those technologies so they can get deployed here in Arkansas.
Gatling: When you pay attention to all the policy discussions that are going on right now at both the federal and state level, you’ve obviously got the tariff on solar modules from the Trump administration, you’ve got the net metering discussion going on at the state level, what do you hear that makes you think 2018 could be a breakout year for renewable energy and on the flip side of that what do you hear that might be somewhat a cause for concern as we go forward this year.
Hutchings: So I think the tariff has been obviously on everybody’s mind recently. I think the most challenging aspect of the tariff was it happened between the summer and the announcement of the actual tariff where everyone was just kind of speculating what was going to happen instead of knowing the actual rules that they were going to be operating under. I think a lot of people eventually said that the tariff isn’t as bad as they expected and so now at least they can adjust their expectations to the new reality and continue moving forward.
(left) Douglas Hutchings, CEO of Fayetteville startup Picasolar, responds to a question from Northwest Arkansas Business Journal Editor Paul Gatling. (photo by Jeff Della Rosa)