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story.lead_photo.caption Information about Major solar projects in Arkansas

RUSSELLVILLE -- In the shadow of factories and white plumes of air from the Nuclear One power plant, 30 solar panels sit atop Joshua's Fine Jewelry in downtown Russellville.

Chris George is finally living out an 18-year-old dream. The owner of Joshua's Fine Jewelry wanted to power the store on renewable energy, but for 18 years it didn't make sense.

"It was just too expensive. I was just never going to pay it off," said George, 57, whose ambition was to make his store "as green as we could be."

Solar panels were manufactured by far fewer entities in 1999 and materials were more expensive, so installing the panels simply wasn't economical.

By 2015, things had changed. Solar prices had gone way down, many energy experts said, and installations went way up. It also was about the time utilities in Arkansas began installing or announcing plans for large-scale solar projects.

With declining prices in solar, wind and natural gas, the nation's electricity sector is changing.

Since 2015, utilities have announced six solar projects built in Arkansas, the first ever for the state. The projects aren't just taking off for utilities, either. It's happening on a much smaller scale, too, with Arkansas homeowners and business owners installing solar panels.

So earlier this year, George took another look at solar, figuring out the cost of installation and the potential savings. He'd have to pay about $16,000 -- after a $7,700 federal solar tax credit -- and the panels would save him a few hundred dollars right off the bat. He'd have to pay off the panels on which he would nearly break even for the first few years, but once they were paid off he'd get to keep the savings.

George did the same thing for his home, estimating that after five to six years he'd be left with no electricity payments at all, and came to a conclusion

"Anybody that doesn't do this is foolish."


President Donald Trump's administration has sought to remove regulations affecting coal production and power, announcing earlier this month that the administration would end the Clean Power Plan, which required states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and targeted coal plants in the process.

Even with the administration's decision, the costs of natural gas and non-hydropower renewable energies have sunk and their consumption has risen. Accordingly, utilities are using less coal power.

Natural gas has always been a competitor with coal but now has outpaced coal consumption and production in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2017 Energy Outlook, to become the greatest producer of energy at just more than 27 quadrillion British thermal units produced in 2016.

The Energy Information Administration forecasts wind and solar, which produced about 7 quadrillion Btu in 2016, to match coal production and surpass coal in consumption by 2040. Coal produced about 15 quadrillion Btu in 2016 and is projected to produce about 12.5 quadrillion in 2040.

For utility-scale solar, the median price per watt of alternating current dropped from about $6.50 10 years ago to $2.20 in 2016, according to the Utility-Scale Solar 2016 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The report defines a utility-scale project as being 5 megawatts or greater.

Operation and maintenance costs have decreased from $19.30 per megawatt hour in 2011 to $8.20, and the megawatts of added utility-scale solar generation in 2016 (10,636 megawatts) were more than twice what they were in 2015 (4,149 megawatts).

The number of smaller solar installations at homes and businesses has grown by hundreds of thousands each year since 2013, according to the Berkeley lab's Tracking the Sun 10 report released earlier this year.

For those nonutility projects, the median price of installing solar has fallen two-thirds since 2000 (from $12 per watt of direct current to $4) and the size of the projects has more than doubled since 2000 (from 2.9 kilowatts to 6.2 kilowatts)

Incentives for solar are contributing to installation of it, experts said.

Some states offer tax incentives for installing renewable energy. Arkansas doesn't, but the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit for solar, which effectively knocks off 30 percent of a project's cost. The amount of the tax credit is scheduled to decrease in the coming years.

Renewable energy also has come from states that have standards and goals for the amount or proportion of electricity generated in the state by renewables. Arkansas does not have a standard for either, but neighboring Texas and Missouri do.

Seeing an opportunity, more businesses have opened or expanded to include solar, which has helped drive costs down further.

Fewer companies manufactured panels before, said Seal Energy Solutions co-founder Josh Davenport, but manufacturing of solar and wind technology has risen domestically -- including in Arkansas -- so parts don't need to be shipped as far.

Employment in solar power also has changed. The industry employs more people in the U.S. than fossil fuels, nuclear and wind combined, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar employs 373,807 people, according to the department's 2017 U.S. Energy and Jobs Report. Wind employs 101,738 people, nuclear employs 68,176 and fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil/petroleum and advanced gas) employ 187,117.


Entergy Arkansas, Southwestern Electric Power Co. and the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives all have expressed intentions to increase reliance on solar and wind renewable energy.

The Energy Information Administration projected in its 2017 Annual Energy Outlook that domestic consumption of natural gas and renewables like wind and solar would continue to rise through 2040, while coal would plummet. Other energy sources -- including petroleum, nuclear, hydropower and liquid biofuels -- are not projected to change much.

Utilities have been invested in renewable energy for decades. For years hydropower has helped round out electricity portfolios that included nonrenwables like coal, natural gas and nuclear.

More recently, however, utilities are adding solar, wind and natural-gas projects and neglecting coal and nuclear.

One of the projects is a 3,840-panel, 1-megawatt solar field in Holly Springs. Ouachita Electric Cooperative built the field in Dallas County for $3 million. Once the utility gets its tariff model approved by the Arkansas Public Service Commission, a limited number of panels will be available to residents, said Mark Cayce, general manager of Ouachita Electric Cooperative.

"It will be cheaper than buying from a traditional generator, mainly because we don't have to fuel it. This is a generator where the fuel delivers itself," said Cayce, noting that solar and wind have no fuel costs that would make prices fluctuate.

And when solar arrays can be built close to where they will be used, transmission costs go down compared with traditional power sources, said John Lester, general manager for Clarksville Light and Water Co.

His city-owned utility in Johnson County will build a 5-megawatt operation using about 20,000 solar panels on 42 acres in town to supply about 10 percent of the power for the community of 4,500 people. It'll cost about 5.5 cents per kilowatt compared with 5.3 cents per kilowatt for the rest of the utility's power sources, but it'll be cheaper because of lower transmission costs, Lester said.

After seven years, the utility can choose to purchase the solar array from Scenic Hill Solar, the private company that is building it, for about $7 million. That will bring the cost per kilowatt down to about 3 cents, saving the city more money.

While the low cost of solar has gotten more utilities on board, many utilities and other groups maintain that a diverse electricity portfolio is best for customers.

"In order to protect consumers from price volatility and electric outages, fuel and technology diversity is key," Steve Cousins, executive director of Arkansas Electric Energy Consumers, said in a statement. "Coal-fired generation is central to such a strategy given its attributes of price stability, dependability, and resilience."

Other notable projects have installed large solar arrays on businesses, such as a 12-megawatt facility for Aerojet Rocketdyne in south Arkansas built by Ouachita Electric Cooperative and a 1.2-megawatt array at L'Oreal's manufacturing facility in North Little Rock installed by Scenic Hill Solar.

Beyond utilities, companies like Scenic Hill Solar and North Little Rock's Seal Energy Solutions are busy.

Davenport said his company has grown to 19 people working in its solar division and has done about 70 solar installations this year.

"It's not the same solar environment as it was two years ago," he said.


Solar proponents are keeping an eye on a rule-making process before the Arkansas Public Service Commission that could affect the financial viability of some projects.

The rule-making concerns "net metering," a term used to describe when a home or business with a renewable-energy generating facility connects to a public utility to possibly transfer surplus power into the utility power grid.

For example, people who install solar panels on their homes connect them to a utility's grid so they can use the energy generated at any time instead of only when it is light outside. Utilities then credit the property owner on their bills for the excess power they've produced. If they've used more than they've produced, they would be charged for that electricity.

The commission is accepting input on new net-metering rules, including a proposal related to Act 827 of 2015 that would allow utilities to deduct from their credits to users the cost of connecting them to the electric grid.

The commission is expected to set new rules in the coming months regarding net-metering contracts. It has already decided that it will expand net metering to allow, on a case-by-case basis, facilities with a capacity of 300 kilowatts or above.

Renewable-energy proponents and environmental groups have supported making net metering as easy as possible.

They'd like to see the current rate of credit -- in which utilities pay the market rate of the electricity back to property owners -- stay the same. But industry groups and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge have determined that utilities may reimburse only as much as 75 percent of the market rate.

Input from the industry has focused on the size of a user's net-metering facility and whether existing users should be exempt from any new rules.

In response to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about its net-metering position, Entergy Arkansas issued a statement saying its proposal "is more appropriate than the retail rate, ensuring that net-metering customers pay rates more accurately reflecting the utility's cost of providing service."

Casey Roberts, a Sierra Club attorney who has been working on the rule-making, said the lower credit can make a big difference for a homeowner who isn't installing solar panels to a larger, more economical scale.

"That could completely remove the financial incentive to go solar," she said.

Utilities have to spend money connecting homeowners and business owners with solar to the electricity grid, but research done by Crossborder Energy for the Sierra Club suggests the costs can be offset by the closeness of solar facilities to existing infrastructure and the consumption of less electricity by property owners, Roberts said.


Chris George said he is "pretty pleased" with the solar panels on his Russellville jewelry store.

They are a way to make a difference that doesn't require much beyond installation, he said.

"We want to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren than what we had," he said.

Nathan George, the son of Chris George who is also a Russellville city councilman, said he's also exploring how to convert the city to more solar power.

In August, the city's electricity costs were about $40,000. Solar panels, Nathan George said, could be a way for the city, much larger than a single store on West Main Street, to save money, too.

SundayMonday on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: As costs go down, sun power rises in state; Utilities adding large solar projects; homeowners, businesses installing panels


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Archived Comments

  • RBear
    October 22, 2017 at 8:26 a.m.

    Great article on the changing energy environment in our nation. Arkansas is finally starting to jump on this bandwagon with the electric cooperatives leading the way. With prices continually dropping, alternative energy is quickly becoming more cost effective than some fossil fuels. Renewables, especially home solar projects, are also job creators for more Americans than coal could ever be. They are proving to be the true job creators of our nation.
    That being said, I'm amazed that some states including Arkansas continue to fight this trend and not offer tax incentives. These projects help diversify our energy portfolio, create jobs LOCALLY, and help improve our environment. They offer long-term energy stability for our nation. Yet, some right wingers will fight providing incentives because of out of date thinking.
    Why would you make such massive investments in a dying industry such as coal when you can see where the future is headed? There are so many benefits in helping grow this industry it's a no-brainer.

  • DontDrinkDatKoolAid
    October 22, 2017 at 12:52 p.m.

    Well, if everything for soler power was made in America, it would be a win-win deal. But sadly not.

  • RBear
    October 22, 2017 at 1:52 p.m.

    DDDK regardless whether it is or not, this is win-win for all. There are American companies manufacturing solar today and are trying to get their costs competitive. I disagree with applying tariffs to solar products being imported as that does no good other than to artificially prop up a market.
    The number of jobs created by solar is AMAZING compared with coal and the benefits of the product are even more AMAZING. Solar just adds to the portfolio and helps diversify our energy resources. Think about it. A vast energy source hitting us every day that we just ignore, yet we try to prop up a source that is dwindling, spend millions to extract, and it damages our environment. Besides, the less we extract the more that will be in reserve IF it's ever needed again.

  • DontDrinkDatKoolAid
    October 22, 2017 at 2:23 p.m.

    I will take reliability over "AMAZING".

  • RBear
    October 22, 2017 at 3:18 p.m.

    DDDK, when you consider a diverse energy portfolio you get far more reliability than with a few sources. Renewables are meant to allow us to conserve those other sources with a constant source that will be there long after we're all gone. By using renewables, we avoid having to use fossil fuels and allow more stockpiling when needed. It just make SO MUCH SENSE to push renewables more and conserve the other sources.
    For some reason, those on the right see this as a binary decision which shows disturbing short-sightedness. Progressives see this as yet another source to help create diversity in the portfolio. Quite frankly, it shows how much right wingers lack in strategic planning and why they shouldn't hold the wheel when driving policy. Your comments reflect that ignorance.

  • wildblueyonder
    October 22, 2017 at 4:18 p.m.

    How is solar energy stored for future use?

  • TimberTopper
    October 22, 2017 at 5:40 p.m.

    moz, your chant of put the miners back to work, seems to be a thing of the past more and more.

  • TimberTopper
    October 22, 2017 at 5:44 p.m.

    hog, in a battery.

  • GCW
    October 22, 2017 at 6:29 p.m.

    Solar is not here yet. When Walmart and other box stores start converting their square miles of roof space into solar arrays then I will believe it. Surely they've run the numbers. You would think solar power would save them bazillions in cooling costs on hot summer afternoons.

  • RBear
    October 22, 2017 at 6:34 p.m.

    When I talked about stockpiling, what I meant and what many energy experts agree is to stockpile fossils while using renewables. It's a pretty ingenious strategy, especially when you consider the on-demand capabilities of natural gas compared with coal. In fact, if you add in home solar the need for coal diminishes even further, essentially obviating it completely.