Powering Arkansas’ economy

by Katie Laning Niebaum ([email protected]) 624 views 

The advanced energy economy is an increasingly important economic driver in Arkansas, with innovation, declining costs and favorable policies helping to drive the deployment of advanced energy solutions. The state continues to experience a growing demand for advanced energy resources, including energy efficiency, solar, wind, storage, electric vehicles and more.

Solar has been a hot topic (pun intended), and with good reason. Last year, the General Assembly passed the Solar Access Act (now Act 464) with bipartisan support, enabling third-party financing for solar systems. Act 464, which took effect in July, already is spurring greater adoption of advanced energy solutions, particularly with a wave of cities, counties and school districts seeking to deploy solar.

Arkansas was already among the leading states for solar job growth. According to the Solar Foundation’s latest jobs census, Arkansas reported a 30% increase from 2017 to 2018. Only five states saw higher year-over-year growth. Moreover, third-party financing enabled by Act 464 could double or triple the number of solar jobs in Arkansas, according to analysis from the Business Innovations Legal Clinic at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law.

Arkansas had its biggest year of solar installation ever in 2018, according to GMT Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Arkansas ranked 18th among the 50 states, adding 118 megawatts of solar generation.

Additionally, Arkansas recorded the largest annual increase in the number of net metering systems ever. The Arkansas Advanced Energy Association’s (AAEA) review of annual electric utility filings found a total of 1,508 net metering systems as of Dec. 31, 2018, a 520-net increase over the end-of-2017 number of 988 systems (a 52.6% increase).

Not to be outdone, Arkansas’ energy efficiency workforce has grown to more than 15,000 people and accounts for the largest sector of the state’s advanced energy economy. Under the state’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, utility energy efficiency programs have proven to be an essential economic driver for Arkansas and advanced energy technologies.

Arkansas Energy Performance Contracting (AEPC) continues to be a significant economic development vehicle. Thirty-six projects have been fully executed or are in active development, guaranteeing over $375 million in energy savings for public clients, according to the Arkansas Energy Office. These projects are saving the consumption equivalent of over 12,000 homes annually. In November, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences broke ground on the state’s largest AEPC project to date, a $150 million project.

Solar and energy efficiency initiatives are credited with the state’s first utility-wide electricity rate decrease from Camden-based Ouachita Electric Cooperative. As CEO Mark Cayce said when making the announcement, “When you can add solar and add jobs and lower prices, everybody wins.”

Energy storage is emerging in Arkansas. The City of Fayetteville flipped the switch last September on one of the most significant solar and storage projects in the Mid-South. A handful of large-scale projects have since been announced in all corners of the state. Energy storage will be an increasingly utilized technology as the economics continue to trend in a favorable direction.

These market developments are taking place against critical deliberations at the Arkansas Public Service Commission. The Commission is expected to issue a final decision this spring in the net metering proceeding, potentially adjusting rules. AAEA has long-argued that customer-financed solar systems are a net benefit for utility systems and all ratepayers.

In a separate proceeding, the commission is looking at how to prepare electric customers and utilities for the growth of distributed energy resources.

We know advanced energy technologies provide careers, local community investment and energy savings in states that deploy them. By enhancing access to these resources, advanced energy technologies can continue to power Arkansas forward.

Katie Laning Niebaum is the executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.