The business of energy has always been an uncertain industry, filled with terrific highs and horrendous lows. At the moment, Arkansas is on a high with solar energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the country’s solar power capacity has grown from .34 gigawatts (GW) in 2008 to a current estimated 97.2 GW — enough to power the equivalent of 18 million average-sized homes.
As solar energy becomes more affordable, accessible and therefore more popular, environmentalists aren’t the only ones pleased. Business owners and workers in the solar industry are reaping the benefits of a growing industry as well. Solar has induced a job-growth rate of 167 percent over the past decade, five times faster than the overall job growth rate for the U.S. economy. Currently, more than 250,000 people work in solar-related jobs across the country spanning project development, manufacturing, trade, distribution, installation and more, according to the Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census.
Where does Arkansas fall in all of this? It’s no surprise in national rankings from the Solar Energy Industries Association (based on cumulative solar capacity installed) that California leads the way with more than 31,000 MW and the capability to power more than 8.4 million homes. Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona respectively claim the remaining top five spots. Arkansas hovers in the middle of the pack, ranked as 29th in the country with a capacity of more than 381 MW, which is enough solar-installed power for more than 43,000 homes. Ranked at the bottom of the list are North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Alaska.
Experts are very optimistic about Arkansas’ growing role in the solar energy sector. Sierra Club Arkansas Director Glen Hooks asserted that, “The Arkansas solar energy boom is real, and it’s happening right now.” He credits rapidly falling solar energy prices and the passage of Act 464 for the growth we’re seeing in the state. In 2019, Act 464 expanded net metering and enabled third-party financing for solar systems. According to Hooks, the change in legislation removed barriers that had hampered full participation in solar. Since then, there has been an ever-increasing number of school districts, cities, counties and municipal utilities buying into solar energy.
Following a price drop of 45 percent over the last five years, nearly half-a-billion-dollars’ worth of solar investments have been made in the state, and it is believed the number of solar energy installations will continue increasing over the next several years. The Solar Energy Industries Association projects Arkansas will reach 1,179 MW over the next five years and move up to 28th place. The outlook means employment numbers should climb as well. Today, Arkansas is home to 25 solar companies (two manufacturers, 14 installers/developers, 10 others) and provides 329 solar jobs.
For a long time, the environmental aspect of clean energy has been the driving force for many who choose it. But now more individuals, businesses and government entities are seeing economic benefits of solar energy and joining in. “Solar energy is no longer the future,” Hooks noted. “It’s the present, and it’s bringing the gift of good jobs and a cleaner environment to the Natural State.”
Solar Projects in the Works
Aside from the environmental impact, solar energy provides economic rewards for businesses and for the communities around them. Former Arkansas lieutenant governor and current Scenic Hill Solar CEO Bill Halter explained that while solar energy reduces greenhouse gases, lowers water consumption and improves lung and heart health, it also provides financial wins for users. According to Halter, solar energy provides Arkansas with the following:
• Reduced electricity costs;
• Price certainty and a hedge against electricity price increases;• Local economic impact including capital investment and local employment;
• Enhanced tax base for communities;
• Heightened recruitment of industries and companies with sustainability goals .
Scenic Hill Solar performs projects in all parts of the state. In 2017, it was responsible for installing a 3,528-panel solar array for L’Oreal’s North Little Rock factory. The 1.2 MW array provides about 10 percent of the factory’s power, with remaining power coming from North Little Rock’s Murray Hydroelectric Power Plant. Other major installations include Arkwest Communications, Bank OZK, Central Arkansas Water and several city projects. Scenic Solar’s work performed for Producers Rice Mill is the largest non-utility solar power plant and battery storage project in Arkansas.
North Little Rock-based Seal Solar is another top-performing solar company with installations underway in every size and scope, from 11,000-panel arrays for Lexicon Fabricators and Constructors to the state’s largest county-owned and rooftop solar array. Currently, Seal Solar is working on residential, commercial, government, agricultural and historic projects across the state — including an increasing number with panels, batteries and electric vehicle (EV) chargers. According to Co-founder and President Heather Nelson, following its investment in Evolve Auto — the only exclusive EV car dealership in the Southern United States — Seal Solar plans to provide a fully solar-powered ecosystem. It will include panels, batteries, EV chargers and cars to provide clients with a complete package for energy independence.
Additionally, one of the state’s largest electric companies, Entergy Arkansas, recently received approval by the Arkansas Public Service Commission for a new utility-scale solar project that will provide Entergy Arkansas customers with 100 MW of solar power and 10 MW of backup battery storage to use when the sun isn’t shining. The Searcy solar project in White County will be the largest utility-owned solar project in the state and the first to feature battery storage. When completed in 2021, it will be the third project generating solar energy for Entergy Arkansas’ customers, bringing the total of solar energy to 281 MW covering more than 2,000 acres, enough to power about 45,000 homes.
This comes following a settlement with Sierra Club that was finalized in March of this year. The settlement agreement requires the closure of the Lake Catherine gas plant (528MW) by 2027, White Bluff coal plant (1.639MW) by 2028 and Independence coal plant (1.657MW) by 2030. The settlement also requires 800MW of new wind solar or storage by 2027, 400MW of which must be lined up by the end of 2022.
Bright Future Ahead
Industry leaders are optimistic that the solar energy sector will continue to grow and provide financial good fortune for the state. Nelson noted, “Despite COVID-19, 2020 was a banner year for the state’s renewable energy industry.” Seal Solar alone completed a record 250 projects, established a Northwest Arkansas satellite office, relocated to a larger warehouse space and more than doubled its workforce.
Hooks attested that Arkansas has become a “bona fide energy efficiency leader” in the southeast. “Now that we have a history of success in this area,” he noted, “I expect that our Arkansas leaders will want to expand this success into other non-utility areas, such as improved building codes, increased electric vehicle infrastructure and requiring more energy-efficiency measures from our state’s large industrial consumers. The economic and associated benefits of energy efficiency are simply too strong to ignore.”
Solar firms in Arkansas
Arkansas Solar Power Inc.
Sun City Solar
Hot Springs Village
Solar Source Consulting
Today’s Power Inc.
North Little Rock
SunRun Solar Supplier
Abundant Energy of Arkansas
Allen Energy Broker
Battery Systems of Little Rock
Shine Solar LLC
Arkansas’ Best Solar Co.
Go Solar Arkansas
New Farm Solar
Scenic Hill Solar