Futurists have long foretold of two energy “unicorns,” sources that are as abundant and non-polluting as they are competitive in the marketplace. The dreamier of these is nuclear fusion, fuel to the stars! It chews up abundant hydrogen — that’s nine out of every 10 atoms in the galaxy — and spits out helium, the stuff of party balloons.
Now, a naturally occurring fusion reaction requires an ambient temperature of 15 million degrees Celsius, a threshold so great that it creates another state of matter entirely: plasma. (Not to be confused with blood plasma or, more embarrassingly, ectoplasm)
The second energy unicorn is the next best thing to harnessing the power of a fusion reaction, and that’s harnessing the power of a fusion reaction from a safe distance of 93 million miles, or the distance from here to the sun.
SOLAR POWER ROCKS
Back on earth, inside the Arkansas state Capitol recently, the Arkansas Alternative Energy Commission heard presentations from a couple of contractors who would like to see more photovoltaic solar panels on more Arkansas roofs.
Peter Rienks with Inovateus Solar in Indiana showed commissioners a website that ranked Arkansas dead last in the nation for solar energy adoption and incentives. That’s 51st out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Behind West Virginia and Wyoming, two unapologetically coal-loving states.
SolarPowerRocks.com gives the state a failing grade in tax credits, exemptions and rebates for installing solar energy technology, as well as its Renewable Portfolio Standard (states’ requirements that utilities fold renewable energy production into their operations). In short, the state does nothing to encourage solar energy adoption, and what’s more, the retail price for a standard unit of electricity is about ten cents a kilowatt-hour, a rate so low it’s inhospitable to innovation.
So, ‘F’ there, too.
“Let's say you don't have a ton of extra cash laying around, but you do have a bit of equity in your home,” says the website. “Can you get solar panels? YES! Is it a good idea in Arkansas? PROBABLY NOT!”
In fact, the only thing we do moderately well is offer net metering, the industry term for solar and wind energy producers who add electricity to the grid (thus dipping below zero in energy consumption and earning credits with your utility provider.). Raising the price of net metering for residents is currently being debated at the Public Service Commission, and there is a public hearing at 8:30 a.m. today.
Rienks said after the meeting that Arkansans should demand incentives because the state is actually above average for solar energy potential. In fact, he said the state has more solar potential than Louisiana and Florida.
Solar resource maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory don’t corroborate that.
Instead, Rienks’ should have pointed out that Arkansas’s utilities, municipalities and residential net metering customers are — together, and quite independently — creating a swell of solar production projects over just the last several months.
A WARMING FRONT
This spring a 151,200-panel, 76-acre solar farm went online in East Camden for Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation. How big is this — electrically, symbolically? The biggest solar operation in Arkansas had been the 266-kilowatt solar system at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, metered for Southwestern Electric Power.
At peak solar, the East Camden facility produces 12 megawatts, more than 45 times as much as the VA, and fully one-fifth of the southwest Arkansas Cooperative’s total generating load.
That same week, a one megawatt solar array in Springdale went online for Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation. Troy Scarbrough, vice president of engineering and operations, said it has 4,080 panels, of which about 200 are “subscribed” — half to area homeowners and half to the city of Fayetteville. (Ouachita Electric has a similar “community solar” center planned for operation by year’s end.)
This subscriber or lease program is not the first of its kind, just the first utility-owned lease program. Bill Ball’s Stellar Sun has a much smaller (50 kw) “aggregated solar,” or “community solar,” system in Scott that he shares with a few others. He would like to expand it to 150 kw.
“I started my company in 1976 on the heels of the OPEC oil embargo. We didn’t know about climate change. … I got into this because of national security.”
Ball says many homeowners want the benefit of cheap solar electricity without the down payment, which is about $3-$4/watt, and without the maintenance of having it secured to a residential rooftop. Ozarks’ lease is $340 per panel. Each is 25 years, and Scarbrough says a panel may generate $1.85-$2.80 a month savings over the life of the lease. So the investment returns roughly 12-14 years in.
RED GIANTS AND WHITE DWARFS
Larger players are also seeing clear skies ahead. L’Oreal U.S.A. just announced a partnership with former state Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter’s Scenic Hill Solar to build a 1.2 megawatt solar field at the makeup company’s North Little Rock manufacturing facility (and an even bigger one in Florence, Ky).
Entergy Arkansas, Inc., has a power purchase agreement in place with NextEra Energy Resources for an 81-megawatt solar farm outside of Stuttgart. When it goes online in 2018, it will generate enough power for 13,000 homes, the utility estimates. The company has a Request For Proposal (RFP) in the works for another 100-megawatt facility in the state, and Kurt Castleberry, director of resource planning and market operations, said “our plans would be to continue RFP’s every year to add solar so, you know, we could go on a clip of adding 100 mw a year on solar.”
And that’s just industry. The number of net metering customers in the state who’ve installed their own photovoltaic solar systems has jumped 237 percent in the five most recent years of reporting (2011-2015).
Each year the state’s electricity providers (Entergy, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, electric cooperatives, etc.) list all of their net metering customers, residential and commercial, for the Arkansas Public Service Commission. In 2011, the total number of small solar power producers was just under 200, many with a generator rating of less than one kilowatt. In 2015, the total was 464, many of those systems rated for more than 10 kilowatts of generating capacity.
Has the state reached a tipping point? “Yes!” says Terry Tremwel, an adjunct professor at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of Picasolar, Inc., a solar cell innovation company in Fayetteville. (Tremwel is also currently having a house built he hopes will, on aggregate, use only the electricity he can manufacture from his solar system.)
“Tipping point is a good way to describe it,” he says, because interest and optimism is rising as costs are dropping.
Solar panel technology still has a lot of cost-saving, energy-generating efficiencies to implement — what Picasolar is all about.
“This is going to take people by surprise.”
Ball also says ‘yes,’ and the way that we know is that “right now there’s some 950 mw in the queue, on the way into the queue, or already under construction, that are all utility projects.”
In other words, if utilities, with the benefit of their energy divination, are lining up for solar, the time to buy is now.
“The sweet spot for solar is between now and 2020,” Ball says, when federal tax credits will phase out.
Orlo Stitt is something like Ball’s counterpart in Northwest Arkansas. Stitt began his energy-saving residential construction business four decades ago, and his company is the contractor Tremwel’s using for his house.
Stitt says one of the surprising bottlenecks on solar adoption is the scarceness of trained people. We simply don’t have technical schools teaching state-of-the-art energy systems installation.
He also says that in Arkansas, those private citizens adopting energy-generating photovoltaic systems are doing so because of their consciences.
“Conscience, and climate change problems, anticipation for their children and grandchildren, are the main motivations, still. Here,” he says.
“Not so much in other places.”
Halter said L’Oreal’s announcement earlier this month proves that solar will compete without the incentives heretofore required by businesses.
“I don’t think there’s any question additional [state] incentives would accelerate the pace” of adoption, but “no incentives were necessary with L’Oreal. No state financing. No Governor’s Quick-Action Closing Fund. Nothing.”
Scarbrough and Castleberry are a little less bullish. Both said solar investments are peaking now and for good reason. Both said their companies were poised for further investment. Neither liked the term “tipping point.”
“People need to understand it’s a portfolio effect,” Castleberry said. “I mean, you can’t just go all solar, or all gas, or all whatever. You gotta have the right mix of resources to provide, not only low-cost power, but a hedge against different fuel prices going up.”
Entergy expects to add 200-300 mw of natural gas-powered production in southwest Arkansas within five years, because, “of course, certain resources have certain requirements.”
He means solar, and one requirement, OK, the requirement, is a bright sunny sky.
“People don’t use electricity based on the weather.”