Eating my words, sunny-side up

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 In 2014 I was hearing questions from co-op members who wanted to see large-scale solar energy produced in Arkansas, so I wrote a column for this magazine to explain why your cooperative wasn’t building solar energy projects. In that article I said, “So what’s the problem with solar? To tell the truth, it’s just too expensive …”

It’s just four years later, and I need to eat those words. Solar energy has become an increasingly affordable part of a well-balanced energy mix. I’ll take mine sunny-side up!

This past month your electric cooperative announced an agreement with Renewable Energy Systems Americas, Inc., to develop an 800-acre solar farm in south Arkansas, near Crossett. At 100 megawatts in capacity, this farm will be among the largest in Arkansas, and will provide energy equivalent to the annual consumption of 16,000 households, or 40,000 people.

Starting operations in 2021, the solar farm will help make our generating portfolio more efficient. During the hottest, sunniest days of summer, this farm will produce energy when our conventional power plants are working their hardest to meet your demand for cooling.

This solar project is not just affordable — it will actually help to lower your electric bill. The cost for energy from this project will be below that of our conventional coal-based resources. That price will not increase over the term of our agreement, so it is likely to become more affordable over time. Using conservative assumptions, we expect this solar plant to reduce overall power-supply costs by $40 million to $70 million over our agreement’s 16- to 25-year life.

Some have criticized new solar projects because they take advantage of a 30-percent federal tax credit to make their energy more affordable. But whether you agree with this federal tax policy or not, Arkansans pay their share of federal taxes, so shouldn’t Arkansans get their share of federal tax credits to provide low-cost energy in their state?

This new solar farm will be part of a power supply mix that is relying less and less on fossil fuels. When coupled with conventional coal- and gas-based plants, your co-op’s wind, hydroelectric, solar and biomass resources provide energy diversity and price stabilization. Upon completion of this project, these resources will make up over 20 percent of your energy mix, lowering your bill and protecting you from the price volatility of fossil fuels such as natural gas.

As I prepare to eat my words, I declare your future energy outlook bright and sunny. With a side of steaming, golden buttermilk pancakes, please.

Duane Highley is president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc., (AECI) and Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC). AECI, a statewide service co-op, and AECC, a wholesale power supply co-op, are owned by Arkansas’ 17 local distribution co-ops, which provide retail electric service to more than 1 million members.

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