by Angela Forsyth | Photos Courtesy of Ozark Electric
Last year marked Arkansas’ biggest year ever for solar power installations, making it the 18th highest among the 50 states in terms of added solar projects for the year. While the nation increased a modest 2 percent in solar projects, Arkansas increased its numbers by 552 percent, adding 118 megawatts of solar generation in 2018. The state’s total rose from a mere 22 megawatts at the end of 2017 to 140 megawatts a year later.
The rise in solar power installations is partly due to recent policy changes that have made net metering more accessible in Arkansas. The solar incentive of net metering allows solar panel owners to feed their excess power back into the energy grid. Partnering utility companies capture the extra kilowatt hours directly from these solar power generators and turn their electric meters backwards allowing customers to bank the usage. When solar power is low, consumers can pay to draw electricity from the grid. Essentially, net metering is a series of debits and credits.
The significant rise in solar power installations goes hand-in-hand with the growing number of net metering contracts. Arkansas added 520 new net metering systems last year – increasing 52.6 percent from 988 in 2017 to 1,508 in 2018. These include wind systems as well, but the majority of these newly installed net metering systems were solar. According to the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association (AAEA), this has been the largest annual rise in the number of net metering systems to date.
Senate Bill 145, which passed in March, now allows third-party leasing of solar equipment under the Arkansas net-metering program. The change is expected to make solar projects more attractive to non-taxed organizations like nonprofits, cities and counties and government agencies and schools, allowing them to cut energy costs by partnering with solar companies.
Bill Halter, founder and CEO of Scenic Hill Solar, is optimistic about what the policy change means for his customers and the state overall.
“Today, solar power is the least expensive form of new generation available in Arkansas,” he says. “There are tremendous opportunities for our clients to save money while simultaneously improving the environment. The policy changes mean that what was once not economic for folks is now one of the most economic transactions they can undertake.”
The new policy changes aren’t just opening doors for consumers. The Business Innovations Legal Clinic of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law published a report this year noting that the solar economy created 85 new jobs in Arkansas in 2018. The law school also predicted the new law might double or even triple the number of solar installation jobs in the state. Arkansas currently has seven solar manufacturing companies, 18 installers/developers and nine other related businesses.
Erin Rogers, manager of marketing and communications at Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation, notes the new policies open the door to a larger number of solar vendors.
“In April alone, OECC was contacted by six new companies from around the nation,” she says. “They are seeing a large opportunity in the state.”
OECC has also seen a continual rise in the number of inquiries on net metering and established agreements, signaling a shift in consumer mindset toward solar energy options.
Although Arkansas seems to be headed in a positive direction with the new legislature that makes it easier to grow the state’s clean energy sector, the state still has a long way to go in reaching its potential. Compared to the rest of the country, Arkansas is far behind in solar power penetration overall, Halter notes.
“We’re lower than other states because of previous policies,” he says. “We’re growing rapidly here. Arkansas has an incredible amount of sunlight compared to other states. Long term, if policies allow, we should end up a leader in the country in solar generation, but we have a lot to do to make that a reality, and we need to make sure the policy department helps the process rather than hinder it.”