Clouds Part, Sun Shines on Ceremony Attended by 200 in East Camden
EAST CAMDEN (March 31, 2016) – Nearly 200 people gathered on a rain-soaked field Thursday to witness the ceremonial “flipping of the switch” to the state’s largest solar installation, a 12MW solar plant that will power 30 percent of the energy needs for defense contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne and supply low-cost energy to the state’s 550,000 rural electric customers.
The ceremony was staged under a large tent just outside the fence line to the sprawling 76-acre solar field in the Highland Industrial Park, East Camden. The facility consists of 151,200 solar panels which are ground mounted, single-axis tracking installations to maximize generating capacity. The field will produce more than 30 million KWH of electricity annually.
Matt Kisber, President and CEO of Silicon Ranch Corporation, the owner-operator of the facility, said it was a singular achievement of multiple entities that worked in concert to make the day’s event possible.
"We could not ask for a better partnership to bring the first large-scale solar energy facility to Arkansas," Kisber said. "Silicon Ranch echoes the importance of bringing renewable generation to rural America. This project should assist in additional positive economic impact for the Camden area while providing a reliable, low-cost energy source for Aerojet Rocketdyne and AECC."
The plant was actually completed in late 2015 and has endured a series of tests to ensure its viability.
"We are proud to report the testing period that began at the end of November has produced zero power anomalies, and with the unusually sunny Arkansas winter we have been witness to the exciting potential solar has in Arkansas," said Gary Vaughan, Aerojet Rocketdyne director of Production Operations, Camden. "Silicon Ranch and their construction partner, McCarthy Building Companies, produced a world-class solar facility that will benefit the company and the region today, and in the future."
AAEA was an early advocate for the project and Silicon Solar Ranch is business member and Annual Innovator Sponsor of the Association. Aerojet Rocketdyne and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives are the power purchasers for the project.
Remarks by U.S. Senators Tom Cotton and John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman led off the event. They praised the economic value of the development and its importance to national security as a low-cost energy resource for one of the nation’s premier defense weapons manufacturers.
A renewable energy project for southern Arkansas was initially envisioned 10 years ago, according to one of its chief advocates, Dr. Corbet Lamkin, Chancellor Emeritus, Southern Arkansas University Tech, who recognized a long list of public officials and electric power industry leaders for their support.
“A lot of people poked fun and laughed at this idea over the years but today we can see the product of a private-public partnership,” Dr. Lamkin said.
Lamkin said that SAU first developed a distributed generation proposal that its technology team presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008.
Aerojet Vice President Chris Conley said the solar plant would be a source of pride and inspiration for the company’s 600 on-site workers. He also recognized its environmental and economic benefit.
Michael Henderson, Executive VP, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., said the solar facility will add to the company’s non-emitting resource mix, which also includes hyrdro and wind power that produced 17 percent of the company energy needs in 2015.
In a press release generated by AECC, CEO Duane Highley said "this innovative partnership benefits electric cooperative members by providing predictable energy cost and contributing to the strong economic growth in the Camden area."
Many speakers credited Erik Didriksen, Safety, Health and Environmental Strategist for Aerojet Rocketdyne, as the consistent, determined driver of the project.
Dr. Corbin said the project had its genesis when Aerojet assigned Didricksen from its Sacramento offices to find a way to take advantage of southern Arkansas’s rich natural resources to reduce the company’s energy costs and develop a zero-carbon emitting power source.
Didriksen said that in the beginning there was significant disagreement with AECC officials about if and how the project could go forward. “But at the end of the day I learned that the people of Arkansas are always going to do what’s right for Arkansas,” Didricksen said.
Mark Cayce, General Manager & CEO, Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp., was a consistent supporter of the project and identified by Didricksen as a “quiet cheerleader.”
“The fact that we can harvest the sun to make sure the quality of life in East Camden, and South Arkansas is the best it can be is a chief motivator to complete this project,” Cayce said. “This is a sustainable energy resource that will benefit generations to come.”
Other key contributors that were recognized during the ceremony included Scott Hamilton, then Director of the Arkansas Energy Office, who acted as a convener of key officials who were needed to complete the project, and Gene Hill, President of Highland Industrial Park, who was a consistent supporter who made the 76-acre site available to developers.
McCarthy Building Companies installed the facility and FirstSolar supplied the equipment, all of which was manufactured in the U.S.
The project is also a key element in Calhoun County’s competition for the Georgetown University Energy Prize. Calhoun County is among the 30 finalists competing for the prize which will be awarded next year to the community/utility partnership that demonstrates “innovative, replicable, scalable and continual reductions in the per capita energy consumed from local natural gas and electric utilities.”