Solar Access Act spurs new renewable energy projects statewide

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 2,253 views 

As the nation’s share of monthly electricity generation from renewable sources exceeded coal-fired generation for the first time in 2019, the Arkansas General Assembly passed “game-changing” legislation that put the Natural State at the forefront of this emerging trend.

Although the final tally for 2019 is not in, a Jan. 2 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration highlights new data showing that renewable sources in April jumped to 23% of total electricity generation in the U.S., compared to 20% for coal-fired power.

According to the EIA, record generation from wind and near-record generation from solar contributed to the overall rise in renewable electricity generation this spring. Energy Department data shows that about 15 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar generating capacity came online in 2018.

In Arkansas, a report in March 2019 by GMT Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association showed that the Natural State added the 18th most solar projects among the 50 states in 2018. Arkansas added 118 megawatts of solar generation with that number expected to grow in 2019 and 2020.

Although it is likely a coincidence, the same time that renewable energy use generation leapfrogged U.S. coal-fired production, Gov. Asa Hutchinson was putting his signature on Act 464 of 2019 by Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville. That new law, now known as the Solar Access Act, has spurred further adoption of renewable and advanced energy solutions, state energy experts say, particularly with a wave of cities, counties and school districts seeking to deploy solar and energy-efficient technologies.

“And I think we are going to continue to see all of those trends continue to move into a positive direction into 2020,” said Katie Niebaum, executive director of Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. “Certainly, one of the game-changing elements that we saw in 2019 was passage of the Solar Access Act, which had widespread bipartisan support at the Legislature.

“Clearly in a state where we didn’t have the ability to offer third-party financing or leasing to folks who wanted to ‘go solar’ … so having that enabling policy and giving folks that option has really unlocked a lot of capital in our communities and pent-up demand that was there. And I think we continue to see that in 2020,” Niebaum said.

Analysis from the Business Innovations Legal Clinic of the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock predicts that third-party solar leasing enabled by Act 464 could double or triple the number of solar jobs in Arkansas. Already, since Act 464 was enacted into law in July, more than a dozen new solar projects have come online across the state, including several public-private initiatives led by Scenic Hill Solar, the North Little Rock-based renewable energy provider led by former Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Over the past six months, Halter’s firm has partnered with several government agencies, private businesses and municipalities to provide sun-powered electricity in Camden, Stuttgart, Hot Springs, Forrest City, Centerpoint, Danville and other communities.

Scenic Hill and the Central Arkansas Water Board approved an agreement nearly a week before Christmas for the solar energy firm to build a 4.8-megawatt power plant near Cabot on a 30-acre plot of land. That project for Arkansas’ largest drinking water utility is expected to go online in the fourth quarter of 2020, subject to approval by the Public Service Commission.

“This partnership between a local business and a government organization will benefit customers, spur economic development, and save money,” Halter said on Dec. 20. “This project will also provide more than $7 million of investment into the Central Arkansas economy. Scenic Hill Solar will make this capital investment and 450,000 CAW ratepayers will benefit.”

Today’s Power Inc., the renewable energy arm of Little Rock-based Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., has also announced similar solar projects in Paris, Texarkana, Arkadelphia, Jonesboro, Fayetteville and other areas of the state.

The state’s largest municipal solar project in Fayetteville was first connected to the state’s power grid in early September. Days after Act 464 was enacted into law in July, the city partnered with Ozarks Electric Cooperative of Fayetteville and TPI to hook up three solar farms and two battery storage units on 87 acres near the city’s two water treatment facilities. The installation, including 10 megawatts of sun generation and 24 megawatt-hours of on-site storage, is expected to save the city $180,000 a year on the $23 million project.

Shortly after the Fayetteville project went online, South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative (SCAEC) in Arkadelphia dedicated a 1-megawatt (MW) solar array with a flip of a ceremonial switch at the eight-acre facility that will serve the cooperative’s member in Clark, Dallas, Hempstead, Hot Spring, Howard, Montgomery, Nevada and Pike counties.

In November, UAMS broke ground on the state’s largest AEPC project to date, a $150 million project executed with Bernhard Energy. NextEra Energy Resources LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc., and electricity utility Entergy Arkansas announced Dec. 2 the start of construction on the 100-megawatt Chicot Solar Energy Center in southeast Arkansas. The $130 million center near Lake Village will be the largest universal, utility-scale solar energy project in Arkansas, and should be complete in late 2020.

Based on data from the Arkansas Energy Office (AEO), 36 advanced energy projects have been fully executed or are in active development, guaranteeing over $375 million in energy savings for public clients. Under the state’s Energy Performance Contracting (AEPC) program, a financing mechanism used to pay for energy efficiency improvements through an annual rebate, projects executed in the state are saving the consumption equivalent of more than 12,000 homes a year.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Talk Business & Politics annual State of the State magazine.