Arkansas legislators study solar power growth, net metering and recycling

Utility leaders say net metering benefits individuals but does not help utilities’ other customers

By: - September 8, 2022 12:30 am

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State lawmakers on Wednesday began weighing how to regulate Arkansas’ growing solar industry.

During the four-hour hearing, legislators heard a range of at times conflicting views about the potential impacts and viability of solar energy and net metering.

Representatives of utilities, the solar industry and environmental advocacy groups agreed that solar power can benefit Arkansas economically and environmentally but should not be the state’s sole energy source.

“The goal is not to have zero impact with our electricity production, but the goal is to have the least impact with the most benefits,” Audubon Delta policy manager Glen Hooks said. “I believe that solar energy falls into that category, certainly when compared to some of the large-scale burning of fossil fuels.”

The Joint Committee on City, County, and Local Affairs held the hearing around an interim study proposal on solar power, net metering and the disposal of solar energy materials that could serve as a basis for future legislation.

Under Act 464 of 2019, utility customers who generate their own solar energy can receive credits on their bills for sending their utilities any excess power they produce.

Hooks said this law led to “dynamic movement in solar in the last few years here in Arkansas.”

However, this net metering opportunity only benefits individual energy consumers and does not help utilities serve their other customers, said John Bethel, Entergy Arkansas’ director of public affairs.

“The utility doesn’t have any control over those resources or where they’re located, when and how they operate, and when, if any, power is delivered to the utility,” Bethel said. “Additionally, because those individual net metering customers rely on Entergy Arkansas to provide them power, and because solar is inherently intermittent and the sun doesn’t always shine, we still must ensure adequate resources are available to serve all our customers, including those who net meter.”

The statewide Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation believes in a “diverse portfolio” of energy sources, president and CEO Buddy Hasten said.

He agreed with Bethel that utilities still have to provide for all their customers while receiving less revenue as a result of net metering, but he insisted that the cooperative is not “pushing back against solar.”

“My job is not to look at my members and take something out of their hands that they want,” Hasten said. “My job is to give my members the best education possible so they want the right things.”

Rural solar

Lauren Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, said she has met with farmers, landowners, county judges and solar developers in small communities throughout Arkansas to discuss potential multimillion-dollar solar projects.

Arkansas’ largest industry is agriculture, and farmers throughout the state have capitalized on Act 464 to power their farms and save money in the process.

Some legislators expressed concern Wednesday about the use of fertile farmland to set up both windmills and solar panels. Waldrip said some farmers see solar power as a necessary cost-cutting tool.

“Farmers are smart people, and I think they’ve put the pencil to it and decided they can grow a safe, quality food supply while also saving money on their input costs,” Waldrip said in response to questions from state Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.

Jade Anuszek, co-founder and president of Arkansas Solar Power, agreed that Arkansas farmers put careful thought into how much land and money they invest in renewable energy.

“I don’t think the question is, ‘Are we depleting our agricultural demand and production for our state?’” Anuszek said. “I think the question is ‘How do we gracefully merge that so our farmers save money on a portion of their farms in order to utilize that savings for fuel costs and overhead?’”

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, said the growth of solar energy in the state is “the free market at work.”

“I’m not one of those people that thinks alternative fuels are going to replace traditional fuels anytime in my lifetime, and I think it’s politically irresponsible to say that we don’t need any of these things,” Johnson said. “I think we need a real diverse energy mix to protect us from any one category or cartel having an inordinate amount of leverage on our country.”

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.