8. A Solar Year
Solar power kept its momentum in Arkansas in 2017, with businesses, farms and even a telephone company reaching for the sun, but the long-term fate of home-generated power faced high noon on Nov. 30. That’s when state regulators heard arguments for and against letting utilities essentially pay less than their retail rate to net-metering customers — those whose solar panels put excess wattage onto the grid.
The Public Service Commission’s staff, the state attorney general’s office and the power companies favor credits for returned solar energy that are less than the utilities’ retail rates — perhaps half. Solar contractors, environmentalists and hundreds of citizens spoke out for keeping the current one-to-one match of retail rates and solar credits.
Utilities argue that they should be able to recover infrastructure and transmission costs from solar-panel owners. Otherwise, they say, non-solar customers would have to pay more.
Solar advocates say utilities ignore benefits like lower peak loads, and cite a study finding that power companies and society reap a net benefit from solar. They say, too, that the utilities’ “two-channel” billing plan could kill solar growth by confusing potential customers and obscuring how long they might wait to recoup their solar investments.
Solar forces got a dramatic lift when Rep. Stephen Meeks, the Greenbrier Republican who sponsored the legislation mandating a new look at net-metering, spoke against the utilities’ two-channel plan.
Heather Nelson of Seal Energy Solutions called it a “mic-drop moment,” but the three-member commission has indicated it will give more weight to the attorney general’s arguments. A decision is expected by the end of spring.
Meanwhile, solar projects kept going in, with Entergy Arkansas completing the state’s largest solar array, an 81-megawatt project near Stuttgart, late in the year, then revealing plans for an even bigger 100-megawatt system near Lake Village, Chicot Solar.
Scenic Hill Solar of Little Rock, which installed multimillion-dollar industrial projects at L’Oreal plants in North Little Rock and Kentucky, is deep into work on a $10 million array for Clarksville’s municipal utility, and Stratton Seed Co. of Stuttgart and Ace Glass Construction Corp. of Little Rock announced sun projects to fully power their business operations. Ace Glass is partnering with Entegrity Energy Partners, and Stratton’s project was the first net-metering endeavor to gain PSC approval for generating more than 300 kilowatts of power. “To be a small family business and be the first to do this in net metering is pretty exciting,” CEO Wendell Stratton said.
Seal is providing solar systems for HVAC contractor Powers of Arkansas in North Little Rock and has installed an array for farmer Tom Jacobs of DeWitt. “Real-world numbers are what counts,” Jacobs said, describing himself as a “guinea pig” for agricultural solar. “It helps if the guy doing the testing is the guy writing the check. I look at solar as a piece of farm equipment.”
Today’s Power Inc. of Little Rock continued to install small utility-scale arrays for the state’s electric cooperatives, and last month dedicated a 1.3-megawatt array for Husqvarna Group in Nashville. It also completed a 120-kilowatt system for South Arkansas Telephone Co. in Hampton, making SATCO the nation’s first fully solar-powered telephone company. That project was in tandem with Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp.