CLARKSVILLE — Before a gathering of Rotarians enjoying corn on the cob and barbecue pork, inside a cool room at the University of the Ozarks, the state’s former lieutenant governor and the city’s utilities manager explain the prescience of a 20,000-module solar array in 20 slides.
It's a roughly $10 million investment, or about what the city itself spends in just eight months for power, since it doesn’t generate any itself, according to the manager, John Lester.
When the facility goes online next year it will be the third largest solar generating asset in Arkansas, and the only municipal one, says the erstwhile politician, Bill Halter, whose Scenic Hill Solar beat out two other bidders for the contract.
At peak, the panels will produce roughly five megawatts (a 6.5 MW direct-current load), enough to power one-quarter of Clarksville’s homes, the manager promises. This is power sent directly to the city’s electrical circuit. “Behind the meter,” as they say in the industry.
These 2,000 panels will be mounted on rotating axes that track the path of the sun, pitched on 42 acres just north and east of Exit 55 off of Interstate 40 — visible to traffic.
A CALLING CARD
“There are literally now the majority of the Fortune 100 companies in the U.S. that have sustainability goals for themselves as entities. … They will not locate a facility in a place where they can’t have renewable energy,” Halter tells the Rotarians. “Walmart and its suppliers are seeking to remove one gigaton of CO2 from the atmosphere over the next couple decades.”
Two of Clarksville’s biggest employers are a Hanes Brand factory — the largest for ladies’ hosiery in the world, and a Walmart vendor — and a third is Walmart itself (a distribution center).
Such value-adds as perception and marketing perks are very convincing for Van Alan Hill, president of the Clarksville Regional Economic Development Organization, or CREDO. That it pulls the planet up for fresh air from beneath a pile of atmospheric pollution? Nah.
“I’m not 100 percent sold that climate change is human caused,” Hill says.
But he is sold on the federal tax incentives (none from the state of Arkansas) that renewable energy investment stirs, the energy independence, the serendipity of solar (it produces most when we need it most, on clear warm afternoons), and then, that “there are people who are hard-core, die-hard environmentalists that want to see that, want to locate where that’s going on.”
In the final analysis, “there’s no denying that this is a good thing.”
THE COST OF SERVICE
Traditional power companies and cooperatives who installed and maintain the electrical grid are increasingly hinky about decentralized generation (though roughly five to seven percent of all electric power in Arkansas is lost to transmission, according to the Energy Information Administration).
For years now, small solar and wind power generators have been able to send electricity back onto the grid and gotten rate credits — that is, been paid for it. It’s called net metering, and right now in Little Rock, the Public Service Commission, at the urging of the legislature, itself urged on by legacy power companies, has coordinated and led a Net Metering Working Group meant to rewrite the way rates are set. Specifically, something called the cost of service.
Historically, the capital required to erect the great lattice towers that rut the hills and hollows around the nation are utility company investments, and the costs are passed down to everyone, but in practice, they were rolled into the kilowatt/hour charge, a usage rate that rises and falls. If a homeowner installs a rooftop solar system “behind the meter” — that is, one putting power directly onto the home’s own circuit — the kilowatt/hour total is far below her neighbors', though the cost to the utility to bring her power is the same.
Ultimately, the issue of the homeowner paying her “fair share” doesn’t just involve the utility but even other rate-payers, who presumably, over time, would absorb a greater share of the costs of bringing utility service out to everyone.
The two sides of the working group are solar and wind power investors, from residents to Halter’s Scenic Hill Solar, and legacy energy providers like Entergy and the electric cooperatives.
Clarksville Light and Water is not a net metering generator. That is, its solar power generation will not feed electricity outside of its municipal circuit, but it does represent a potential revenue loss for utilities like Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, a major supplier of traditional natural gas- and coal-fired electrical power to the city, and potentially trickier traffic control for electrical grid conductors such as Southwest Power Pool.
In 2016, a 151,200-panel, 76-acre solar farm went online in East Camden for Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation. Halter’s Scenic Hill Solar built a 1.2 megawatt solar field at the L’Oreal U.S.A. manufacturing facility in North Little Rock (and an even bigger one at the company’s Florence, Ky, campus), while Entergy Arkansas, Inc., has a power purchase agreement in place with NextEra Energy Resources for an 81-megawatt solar farm outside of Stuttgart. It’s expected to go online about the same time as Clarksville.
There’s also solar farms near subdivisions wherein homeowners can lease a few solar panels and see long-term energy savings (while feeling better about their carbon footprint). Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation made a one-megawatt solar array in Springdale available for lease to its customers. In Pulaski County, Bill Ball’s Stellar Sun has a much smaller (50 kw) “aggregated solar,” or “community solar,” system that he shares with a few other homeowners.
To make the Clarksville project appealing to both the city and the company, the deal had to split the capital investment in two. Clarksville, unlike the company, may purchase the acreage from a private holder without paying state or federal taxes. Scenic Hill Solar, unlike the city, will receive significant tax credits for the purchase and installation of renewable energy technology. (The city doesn’t pay taxes so what good are credits?)
Clarksville is one of only 14 municipalities around the state that owns its own utilities (by way of comparison, Missouri has 82). That is, when the University pays its monthly electric bill the check could be walked down the hill, if we still signed checks, or anyone walked in July.
After the slideshow, a few gentlemen asked about energy output and durability — a hailstorm, say; the occasional tornado. Clarksville, not unlike the state, is religiously and culturally conservative — two of every three voters went for President Donald Trump — but no one appears to take in this solar deal as a social experiment. It’s just electricity, after all, and "development."
“I’m old,” says Max Slaughter, “so I’m not real green, but what’s important to me is that we’re moving forward. We’re on the cutting edge of what’s going on.”
Since leaving office in 2011, Bill Halter’s publicly and privately weighed the prospect of a return to politics. The former White House staffer during the administration of Bill Clinton has largely gone dark since vacating a bid for the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 2014.
At the Rotary Club in Clarksville, utilities manager John Lester said he asked Halter to consider something that’s not in any of the spreadsheets.
“I told him, 'I intend to retire from Clarksville Light and Water. This better work because I don’t want to be run out of town.' We had very, very direct conversations about that, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m born and raised in Arkansas, and I have my reputation at stake, too.’”
Afterward, I asked Halter if Scenic Hill Solar wasn’t perhaps a return to political prominence by way of community-building entrepreneurialism.
He waved the reporter’s bid away.
“I can tell you this. I’m having a ball doing this. A community like Clarksville, we’re saving them money. We’re hedging their future power costs. We’re benefiting the environment, and we’re employing Arkansans to build it. You tell me what’s better than that?”
“And if it all leads to a congressional seat …,” I prodded.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!” he said, turning toward the stairs.
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