by Sarah Campbell-Miller
Arkansas senators Wednesday approved by a 28-2 vote Senate Bill 145, a key legislative priority for the state's solar power industry.
The bill will move on to the House Insurance & Commerce Committee, which could take it up on March 13.
Supporters say the bill, sponsored by Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, could potentially double or triple home and business solar installation in a state with plenty of sunshine but relatively few solar projects.
Supporters include the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, Association of Arkansas Counties, Audubon Arkansas, Walmart Inc., Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp., Associated General Contractors of Arkansas and the County Judges Association of Arkansas.
"Advanced energy technologies including solar provide jobs and energy savings in states that deploy them," AAEA Executive Director Katie Niebaum said in a news release. "By enhancing access to these resources, Arkansas can continue to lead in the advanced energy economy. AAEA members thank Sen. Wallace for his leadership recognizing the solar sector as an important economic driver, and appreciate the strong support from the Senate for this solar jobs bill."
The bill would would reverse Arkansas policy by allowing third-party financing for customers who install solar panels and raise limits on the size of solar arrays that can operate under net metering.
The third-party financing would mean government entities and nonprofits would be able to do net metering, the accounting process utilities use to credit customers for excess solar they put onto the electrical grid.
Schools, churches, cities, counties, universities and state agencies could take advantage of federal incentives and lower the cost of solar arrays. The third-party would reap tax benefits, and the nonprofit or government group would reap substantial energy savings.
"Solar energy means more jobs in Arkansas," Wallace said during his remarks on the Senate floor. "This bill is a step in the right direction."
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, also spoke in favor of the bill, touting the economic benefits of solar projects in his district, specifically Aerojet Rocketdyne’s 12-megawatt solar farm, an array now under construction for Southern Arkansas University and Ouachita Electric Cooperative's community solar farm.
Garner said the projects have lowered rates for cooperative members and will allow SAU to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, who shepherded the bill through the initial part of this process as chairman of the Senate Insurance & Commerce Committee, said he wants "to use Arkansas power to power Arkansas."
"Technology is changing … this is a good bill and good policy for our state," he said.