Armed with the new Solar Access Act enacted into law during the 92nd General Assembly, Phillips County is racing to become the first county in the Natural State to install a solar energy system to power all of its local operations.
According to details of the first-of-its-kind arrangement in the Delta, Phillips County officials have entered into a $1 million contract with Little Rock-based Entegrity Partners to install an initial 400kW (kilowatts) of solar photovoltaic array, with the capacity to add another 600kw of solar power in the future. The solar installation is expected to generate a total of 593,000 kWh of clean energy annually, enough to power 48 Arkansas homes for a year.
Rick Vance, regional director for Little Rock-based Entegrity Partners, told Talk Business & Politics that the project will be 100% funded by the utility cost savings and will provide the Delta county a positive cashflow investment that offsets ongoing power costs.
“The big factor, the thing that is putting this all together, is the cost,” said Vance. “The costs to manufacture these panels and other components with solar have come way down. And then the costs to install it … has also come down.”
Before discussions on the project began near the end of 2018, Vance said Entegrity officials were already working with the city of Helena-West Helena on another energy efficiency project when they were contacted by Phillips County Judge Clark Hall. He said Hall wanted the “bling effect,” or something to catch the attention of the rest of the state.
“He said he was tired of people in Pulaski County telling us over here (in the Delta) that we’re doing things backwards,” said Vance. “He knew there were savings, he knew there was a cost-effective approach to it, but he also wanted to make a statement.”
Once those conversations began, Vance said Entegrity did a full assessment and audit of the county’s facilities, utility bills and energy needs. The fast-growing energy services firm, which also has a Northwest Arkansas location in Fayetteville and regional offices in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee, then put together a turnkey solution that included installing a solar package that will meet the energy needs of the county today and later.
“They said we may need more in the future, so this system is installed with the capacity to do more,” said Vance. “So, if down the road, they want to increase production, it will be very, very easy for them to do some the way they are doing things now.”
The solar project will be installed near the new Phillips County Justice Complex in Helena that East-Harding Construction of Little Rock is currently building near U.S. Highway 49. Once installed, energy production from the solar panels will offset current electric utility consumption for the Phillips County courthouse, health department and renovated John Deere building, which will house county and city staff.
Vance said the solar powered system, which will include 1,194 panels on 1.25 acres of county land, will be combined with new lighting and other energy efficiency upgrades guaranteed to produce a minimum of $81,380 savings annually for the county. Over the 30-year lifetime of the project, there will be over $2 million in savings, he said.
The Phillips County energy efficiency and solar system projects are expected to begin this summer and scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2019. Vance said Phillips County will be the second county in the state of Arkansas to install a solar system and the first to use the sun-fueled energy source to power county facilities.
“Phillips County is proud to be engaged in using renewable energy sources to offset the county’s carbon footprint,” said Judge Hall. “We are excited this project will save the taxpayers over $2 million over the life of this project.”
SESSION RESULTS: ‘BOOMING INTEREST’ IN SOLAR PROJECTS
According to Vance and Katie Niebaum, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, the main reason for the “booming interest” in such projects is the Solar Access Act sponsored by Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, during the recent legislative session, along with two other energy priority bills supported by the state’s advanced energy sector.
During debate in the legislative session on Wallace’s Senate Bill 145 that is now the Solar Access Act, Public Service Commission chairman Ted Thomas said the “big picture” legislation to expand the state’s solar marketplace could be a boon for the Arkansas economy – if policymakers are willing to adopt a free market approach that encourages new technologies.
After the bill was easily approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson during a well-attended ceremony at the State Capitol, Niebaum said at the time that SB 145 would enhance access to low-cost solar energy by enabling third-party financing options.
Under the new legislation, the solar array size limit for commercial and industrial net-metering customers increased from 300 kw to 1 MW, cutting red tape and reducing lead-time for projects, supporters say. The measure also adds a grandfathering provision to provide market certainty for customers that submit a standard interconnection agreement before December 31, 2022.
As noted by Vance, this financing tool is particularly important for non-tax entities, such as schools, churches, cities and counties, colleges and universities, state agencies, and non-profits. Now with the option of a third-party solar services contract, these non-tax entities can take full advantage of federal incentives and unlock capital to invest in local communities, he said.
Besides Wallace’s legislation, Niebaum also highlights Acts 507 and 1090 that were enacted into law during the session. They will also help spur greater adoption of advanced energy solutions and savings for renewable power users, she said.
Act 507, sponsored by Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, provides public entities with additional flexibility and support utilizing the state’s Arkansas Energy Performance Contracting (AEPC) program. The legislation will allow a guaranteed energy cost savings contract to align the measure’s active warranty period or combined useful life, instead of capping a contract at 20 years under current law. The bill also allows school districts to opt into the existing program.
Act 1090, sponsored by Sen Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, amends the state’s Local Government Capital Improvement Revenue Bond Act for performance-based efficiency projects. It is designed to help municipalities utilize revenue bonds to fund projects under the AEPC program.
“Advanced energy technologies are an economic driver for the state,” said Niebaum. “Thanks to the engagement and effective leadership of these legislators, more Arkansans will reap the benefits of advanced energy solutions and advanced energy jobs will continue to grow.”
Now with the Phillips County project on its plate, Vance said Entegrity has been contacted by several city and counties, schools and other government agencies in the Delta and Northeast region of the state that are also interested in similar projects as the price tag for such renewable energy developments continue to decline. He said the energy services firm’s pipeline for such projects is growing as local officials learn more about the new laws.
“We are in talks with many, many entities and, surprisingly it is coming out of that Northeast and Southeast Delta region right now,” he said. “A lot of that is because of land, and a lot of that they are looking at their (economic) situation and saying, ‘how can we be different?’”