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2021 legislative measures put focus on environment

by ASHTON ELEY ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | May 16, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas enacted several environmental laws during the 2021 legislative session, but most notable for activists is what didn’t pass.

The 2019 session’s Solar Access Act is credited by advocates and those in the industry with accelerating the growth of solar power in the state. The law increased the solar project maximum from 300 kilowatts to 1 megawatt, establishing full retail credit for net-metering — or selling excess power back into the grid.

However, this session’s House Bill 1787 by Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, would have changed the net-metering price to wholesale, making solar less financially attractive, solar equipment suppliers and advocates protested.

Supporters of the bill argued that the current retail rate for net metering is more than utilities would pay if they were getting the power elsewhere. This cost burden is passed on to non-solar customers — a problem that will exacerbate as solar continues to grow, Fite said.

The bill died without a vote on the floor of either chamber.

“There really weren’t any significant environmental bills passed this year. I’d say that the most important victory was on defense — stopping an effort to end Arkansas’ solar energy industry as we know it. A broad coalition of environmental groups, utilities, and clean-tech businesses joined together to successfully stand up against House Bill 1787,” said Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club. “As a result, our state’s very good ‘net metering’ rules remain in place to protect ratepayers and allow the continued growth of solar energy jobs all across the state. We are very pleased to see solar energy businesses flourish throughout Arkansas—clean solar energy leads to cleaner air, lower electric bills, and good-paying jobs for Arkansans.”

Asked whether he plans to file a similar net-metering bill in 2023, Fite said he’ll first propose an interim study this summer on solar, net metering and the impact on the long-term energy plan in Arkansas.

“Most of the automobile manufacturers are planning on phasing out gasoline engines in favor of the electric cars in the next decade,” Fite said. “I would like to study how we will dispose of batteries and solar panels as the industry grows.”

ELECTRIC VEHICLES

In recognition of the increasing popularity of electric cars, the General Assembly passed legislation readying the state to accept and utilize future federal funding to improve electric-vehicle infrastructure. It also passed environment related bills addressing utility and recycling concerns.

Arkansas ranks last in the country for its electric-vehicle adoption rate and infrastructure, creating obstacles for consumers, retailers and manufacturers, according to Senate Bill 632.

Now known as Act 781 — having passed 73-13 in the House and 32-2 in the Senate — the law will establish an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Grant Program within the Department of Energy and Environment to expand installation of fast charging stations in key locations.

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $174 billion for electric-vehicle investments, including chargers and vehicle purchase incentives. This spending will need lawmakers’ approval, but more than a dozen programs with $41.9 billion in federal grant funding will be available that could be applied to electric-vehicle infrastructure expansion, according to an April 22 White House fact sheet.

With Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s signature, the act went into effect April 21 with an emergency clause in anticipation of the imminent arrival of federal funding. The act also allows for both private and public funds to be accepted in the future if available, said Morgan Acuff, a Department of Energy and Environment spokesperson.

“The recent action of the Arkansas General Assembly provides a pathway to provide grants to meet these needs utilizing federal funds and to further enhance Arkansas’ energy future and connectivity to opportunities for economic development and tourism while assuring clean air in the Natural State,” department Secretary Becky Keogh said.

The funds are separate from the program implemented by the department earlier this year that is funded by the nearly $1 million Volkswagen Settlement, Acuff said. That program is currently open to reimburse public and private investment of Level 2 charging infrastructure.

ENERGY SOURCE PROHIBITION

The governor signed Senate Bill 137 into law on March 10, prohibiting cities and counties from enacting ordinances that ban certain sources of energy. The legislation, now Act 307, had passed 76-11 in the House and 34-1 in the Senate.

Some cities and towns around the country have rewritten building codes so that new construction is required to use electric appliances, not gas, which is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide into the air when burned.

Four states last year adopted laws prohibiting these types of ordinances, and Arkansas was one of at least a dozen more this year to propose similar legislation backed by the fossil-fuel associations, citing the need to protect consumer energy choice.

Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, the House sponsor, said the bill was preventive measure for fear such “good intentioned” green ordinances that limit energy sources could cause energy shortages and increase utility costs.

“There’s just not enough renewable out there right now,” he said. “I’m more than happy we’re doing more renewable energy in Arkansas. You just want to be smart about it. As technology increases, maybe there will be a day, but we’re just not there yet.”

The Arkansas Municipal League did not oppose the bill because, Executive Director Mark Hayes said, the league found that existing state laws already prohibit or frown upon what the bill seeks to prevent.

The Arkansas Sierra Club’s Hooks criticized the bill, characterizing it as putting the gas industry above communities.

“In the interest of promoting clean air and lessening the risk of dangerous accidents, some cities are enacting building codes that expressly require new construction to use all electric appliances rather than gas,” Hooks said. “The fossil-fuel industry is now preemptively seeking to stop cities from exercising local control and banning dirty gas in their own communities. SB 37 is all about protecting the gas industry as cleaner sources of energy become more attractive.”

UTILITIES AFTER STORM

Spurred by February’s winter storms, legislators passed House Bill 1557 in an effort to improve communication between electric utilities and local governments to help keep vulnerable residents safe in times of extreme weather.

“Not blaming or pointing fingers, just there were some people that were not aware and taken by surprise,” said Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, who sponsored the bill. “It’s not that utilities did not make an effort through whatever social media or other means, but in certain areas of the state, people don’t have computers or a smartphone.”

Now Act 877 — passed 70-8 in the House and 34-0 in the Senate — requires, “to the extent technically feasible,” public utilities to directly notify local governments as soon as possible when there will be a coordinated interruption to service or other emergency measures in response to extreme weather.

It also requires providers to give service priority to emergency warming or cooling centers — similar to the priority already given to hospitals — to help keep everyone as safe as possible, Murdock said.

Under another utility bill — House Bill 1665 — the Arkansas Public Service Commission now will be required to evaluate the state’s electric power plants every three years and determine whether it’s in the public’s interest to retire or extend the life of the unit, according to the Affordable Energy Act.

HB1665 passed the House 89-0 with 10 nonvotes and one present, and unanimously in the Senate.

The act is intended to require a review of the retirement economics of the coal-fired plants, commission Executive Director Donna Gray said. A cost-benefit analysis could determine, for instance, whether it makes sense to spend ratepayers’ money on extending the life of a plant by adding updated pollution-control equipment.

From an environmental activist’s standpoint, Hooks said, “whether this bill is good or not largely depends on how well the evaluations are done. If these evaluations are done thoroughly and properly, I believe that we’ll clearly see the economic argument for moving older, dirtier power plants to retirement more quickly.”

RECYCLING

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing part of the waste stream as technology continues to accelerate, churning out new devices. Tossing old electronics in landfills can lead to public health and environmental hazards as well as lost refurbishing potential, said Craig Douglass, executive director at the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District.

“So much of the high quality e-waste, anything with a hard drive has toxic waste in it,” Douglass said. “It has lead. It has mercury. It has cadmium. It should not be in the landfill.”

The state Legislature passed Senate Bill 585 without dissent to create a statewide Electronic Waste Recycling Program and Collection Recovery Plan.

The state has 19 solid-waste management districts, which previously handled e-waste themselves. However, a state-allocated funding program for e-waste recycling ended last year and the districts have been without funding for recycling, Douglass said.

“When the e-waste grants went away, it was imperative we try to figure out how to have an e-waste program and it would be funded,” he said. “We came up with this plan that would be self-funding, a public-private partnership.”

Private recycling companies will have the opportunity to recover a high volume of e-waste that they can refurbish and sell. All state-supported entities have to participate in the program, Douglass said.

“That by itself should ensure a higher volume, high-quality e-waste that then the electronic-waste recyclers will be able to recover, refurbish and sell,” he said. “That would in turn fund the program.”

The state currently has 37 e-waste collection centers, according the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment website. This program aims to increase collection sites, events and public awareness statewide.

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