Conservation and advanced energy executives recently highlighted industry-related concerns, economic drivers and focus areas during the 7th annual Arkansas Environmental Policy Summit in Little Rock, hosted by Audubon Delta and multiple Arkansas environmental organizations.
Ted Thomas, former chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, spoke about the high price of natural gas and how solar can be an economic driver. He cited Entergy Arkansas’ 250-megawatt solar farm that’s expected to provide electricity for the U.S. Steel Corp. plant in Mississippi County.
Thomas, who recently established a consulting company and started to collaborate with utility software firm Recurve, also noted the challenges the commission has faced to establish policies when some electric utilities and cooperatives pack the commission’s agenda with items that take precedence. As a result, the decisions on whether to approve new policies go to the back burner, such as demand response.
Thomas said he hoped the buzz that solar created would have carried over for demand response, but it’s yet to do so. According to Gartner, demand response comprises a measure for reducing energy load in response to supply constraints, such as during periods of peak demand.
Heather Nelson, board chair for Arkansas Advanced Energy Association and president of Seal Solar, discussed some of the items before the commission, including grandfathering. She noted the three existing commissioners were appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be able to appoint a new member and name the chair.
“That’s really important,” Nelson said. “We’re going to have to let our voice be known of who we want to be in that position because the commission has been great for our industry, have been very fair brokers for the last seven, eight years.”
Regarding grandfathering, she said commission members are “drafting a rule as we speak” to be completed before the December meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council.
According to Energy Toolbase, grandfathering allows existing solar customers to maintain the old rates or rules over the lifetime of their arrays. This allows customers to preserve the savings their arrays are expected to achieve, even if utilities were to change the rates and rules.
The council’s Dec. 15-16 meeting is to be its last meeting of the year and comes before Dec. 31, which is when grandfathering would expire if it’s not extended.
“They’re either going to go ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and there’ll be no time or room for debate,” Nelson said. “We desperately need them to say ‘yes’ to whatever the commissioners put forth so that grandfathering doesn’t fall off the cliff, and we’re left to debate that in the legislature.”
Another issue before the commission was brought by Arkansas Advanced Energy Association and regards issues with connecting solar arrays to the grid. Nelson explained that some electric cooperatives are not following the rules, and this has affected some of their members and solar industry clients.
“We have projects that are built and in the field and not producing because of this, that or the other,” she said. “I could go down a rabbit trail, and I will not do that…We have a lot of amazing Arkansans that have invested in solar and have been out six, eight months looking for resolution from their cooperative…that they are a member of. It is unbelievable.”
Also, the commission is seeking data from utilities that say that solar shifts the cost burden onto customers who don’t use solar. She added that “there’s a little bit of a battle there” but didn’t go into the details.
Nelson said on Jan. 9, the new legislature will be in place, with over 30 new state legislators. She said, “our job is to educate. Our job is not to sell…At Seal Solar, we don’t sell. We educate.
“That’s the approach we’ll take with the legislature. It’s the approach that’s worked very well for us the last two legislative sessions, and we’ll do it again. Our job is to educate them on the benefits of solar, and what’s happening with solar. It’s also our job to tell the stories of Arkansans: Everyday people, farmers, business owners who are choosing to invest their hard-earned money to empower themselves to have energy independence and diversify their energy resources and sources for that.”
She encouraged summit attendees to call and write to their legislators and to share stories about their constituents. She said the stories are important to legislators and can be effective.
Nelson also discussed the recently announced $2 million grant that the Arkansas Office of Skills Development awarded to the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association for workforce training initiatives. The organization will be a sponsor for an apprenticeship program providing Arkansas businesses with money for apprentices as the state develops an advanced energy workforce.
Nelson said over the past decade the solar industry has trained its workforce internally, and some of the trained engineers work for utilities. She noted multiple programs in the works or underway throughout the state to train the advanced energy workforce, including at Greenbrier Public Schools, University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College and University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana.
“There’s 37 electric utilities in the state of Arkansas,” she said. “Our team has designed and installed for 27 of those. Some of those people on the other side are our friends. As much as battling is happening, we are trying to build those relationships because we’re kind of all in it together.”
Tony Mendoza, staff attorney for the environmental group Sierra Club, explained that coal is the most damaging way to produce electricity and the planned retirement of Arkansas coal-fired plants. He added that the grid needs more transmission lines and interconnection between the footprints of the regional transmission organizations as more clean energy projects become operational. He added that the Inflation Reduction Act has some money available for transmission projects.
Also, Mendoza encouraged counties and cities with climate goals or those interested in them to apply for grants that support their implementation or improve them, including installing solar panels on city buildings or energy efficiency projects. They can apply for grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The grant money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act. The act also allows cities to provide grants to residents.
“I would encourage, especially cities in Arkansas that have climate goals already, like Fayetteville and Little Rock, to absolutely apply for those programs,” he said.
Other programs in the act help rural electric cooperatives to pay off debt related to retired fossil fuel plants as long as they invest in renewable energy projects.