FRAN ALEXANDER: Let Arkansas shine

State’s policies can do better for solar energy

Few people realize money is not the main barrier to using the sun that lands on their rooftops as their source of electricity.

Arkansas homeowners who do not have the thousands of dollars it takes to buy their own solar panels are not allowed to rent or lease from a company that could provide, install and maintain those sun-gathering devices for them. This state policy, which severely limits access to solar power, would be changed in Senate Bill 145.

Since it is coming up in the Insurance and Commerce Committee of the state Senate, possibly either today or Thursday, residents and businesses need to ask as soon as possible that this bill pass out of committee to go to the Senate for a vote. Bill information is at . People can call and leave a message for committee members at (501) 682-2902

By opening the opportunity to more customers to have solar power, Arkansawyers will finally be able to take advantage of the state's ranking as 11th in the nation in solar potential. Sadly, since we sit at 31st in the amount of solar actually installed, we've been letting a lot of energy, industry and jobs go missing. It's way past time to correct this loss to the state's economy and to stop the harm that power plants pumping out sodium and nitrous oxides and mercury cause to all living things.

Solar energy jobs, especially installation work, reached more than 242,000 nationally and increased by 20 percent in Arkansas in 2018. "Arkansas is well positioned to lead on home grown solar production and clean energy job growth if we can just remove the policy barriers that have been keeping us at the back of the line," said Gary Moody of Arkansas Audubon, the main organization heading up advocacy for the SB145 legislation.

Another change within this bill allows commercial facilities to have solar systems that can generate 1,000 kilowatts instead of only 300 kilowatts for their use. This is significant to large businesses in particular because solar delivers a more cost-effective way to power their operations. Some of the country's largest corporations want to be solar users, but Arkansas's low limit on the size of system installations holds investment back. Fortunately, the one climate that is changing for the better these days is the business climate that is turning away from dirty energy.

Arkansas gets some high marks as a result of the availability of net metering for its residents. We are allowed to get retail rate credit for the energy our solar panels generate and feed into the electric grid. So, for example, if we've used a lot of electricity at night, our use could be paid off during the day when our meters run backwards, especially on sunny days. If we do not have enough generation to cover our energy demand, the electric utility's charges for additional power will kick in.

Another advantage in having companies that lease, install and service systems is that they can apply for solar tax credits unavailable to nonprofits, schools, government facilities and institutions. This change enables solar companies to pass along those savings to these customers for a few more years. Hopefully those credits will continue to be extended for all forms of alternate energy sources to help clean up our atmosphere.

Arkansas Audubon sees the advantages to both humans and birds of bringing solar expansion to the state. One of their studies "found that nearly half of Arkansas's native bird species face future climate risks as their ranges shrink or shift." We need to keep in mind that what is happening to birds, wildlife and vegetation is also happening to us as the climate continues to shift.

But, aside from the environmental benefits of clean energy, our state needs to come to economic terms with the "F" overall grade we have in regard to our policies, incentives and options. In 2017 the solar industry generated $17 billion nationwide and employed thousands. As the prices of solar equipment and services continue to drop, both from increasing competition and the economies of scale, the demand for most alternate energy sources will also likely increase. More information about all things solar can be found at The Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association websites.

Businesses interested in supporting this bill may wish to sign letters to that effect. Call Arkansas Audubon (501-244-2229) for information. But mainly, everyone please contact your legislators as soon as possible.

Commentary on 02/19/2019