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Arkansas lawmakers discuss solar power, electric vehicle charging stations

 Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) and Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge), co-chairs of the Arkansas Legislature's Joint Committee on Energy, listen at a committee meeting at Audubon Arkansas in Little Rock on Monday.
Daniel Breen
Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) and Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge), co-chairs of the Arkansas Legislature's Joint Committee on Energy, listen at a committee meeting at Audubon Arkansas in Little Rock on Monday.

State officials are preparing for an influx of as much as $1.5 billion in federal funding to go toward new clean energy projects.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in August dedicates the funding to Arkansas over the next eight years to help fund new solar energy projects.

In a meeting of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy Monday, Lauren Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, said farmers in the state have begun to adopt solar technology to help deal with rising energy costs.

“Arkansas growers now see this technology as a tool that they can utilize which allows them to control one input, and the price of that input, which is otherwise variable. Their choice to produce power helps reduce the significant amount of risk they already endure every single year,” Waldrip said.

Committee members met Monday at the Little Rock headquarters of Audubon Arkansas, and heard from Audubon Delta Policy Manager Glen Hooks about their successes in utilizing solar energy for their building.

Energy consultant Karl Rábago told committee members solar power can be utilized by a wide variety of customers, from utility companies and individual users to so-called “community solar” projects.

“Utilities do some prospecting on their grid, looking at places where the grid can use some help. They can identify high-value locations for mid-size solar plants that will save them a bunch of money on grid costs. And, with the community solar model, customers can subscribe to just what they can afford,” Rábago said.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits and other incentives for those seeking to adopt solar power. Arkansas also provides credits on energy bills for individual customers who create more solar energy than they use, through a process called net metering.

Lawmakers on Monday also heard updates from state transportation officials on their plans to help create a network of electric vehicle chargers throughout the state.

The state is receiving about $54 million over the next five years to create the network of charging stations through the federal National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program.

Brad McCaleb, Division Head of Transportation Planning and Policy at the Arkansas Department of Transportation, says 23 new charging stations must first be placed along major interstate highways before the program can be expanded to less highly-trafficked routes.

“Once we meet those requirements for the interstates and the designated corridors, then we can open the application process up for those other routes. For the department, obviously our next step is looking at those U.S. routes and the state routes to extend the charging network, but… we anticipate having the opportunity to extend that network even further,” McCaleb said.

The program requires fast charging stations be placed every 50 miles, and within one mile of an exit, on specific high-traffic routes. In Arkansas, Interstates 30, 40, and 49 are slated to be the first to receive new chargers.

ARDOT will not own, operate or maintain any of the stations, and owners must match at least 20% of the cost to receive federal funding. McCaleb says, while state officials await federal rules for the program, it could be as late as next summer before contracts for building the charging stations are awarded.

Daniel Breen is News Director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.