Flipping the Switch

Arkansas counties looking to solar power options

By Christy Smith
AAC Communications Director

When Washington County’s solar energy project went online in May, it became the largest county-owned and rooftop solar array in the state. The 5,400-panel system in Fayetteville is part of Washington County’s $8-million energy-efficiency measures, approved by the county quorum court last year. The measures are expected to save taxpayers $10.2 million in electrical costs over 10 years. In fact, according to an article by Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, the county will pay an electrical bill only a few times a year.

“By investing in solar energy production, Washington County is able to significantly reduce its grid consumption,” said Dwight Gonzalez, the county’s director of buildings and grounds. “It’s a smart financial decision for the county, particularly during these uncertain economic times.”

Solar energy panels that will produce 2.01 megawatts of electricity were installed on the roofs of two office buildings and shops of the road department and in a ground field on Washington County’s south campus near Clydesdale Drive.

Installed by Seal Solar, it is part of a performance contract by Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) to implement facility improvement measures, including 2,327 LED light fixtures and controls; 137 water conservation retrofits and upgrades; 88 pieces of HVAC equipment; a county-wide energy management system; new fire alarms; and overall building enhancements like weather stripping.

“Since 2012, Seal Solar has tackled groundbreaking projects to empower entities across the state to achieve energy independence,” said Josh Davenport, the firm’s co-founder and CEO. “Once again, we’re proud to lead the charge on an unprecedented solar design and installation project with the largest county-owned and rooftop array in Arkansas.”

Meter aggregation from the array will offset energy consumption at Washington County’s facilities, including its animal shelter, armory, coroner’s office, bridge building, county library, election commission, historic courthouse, judicial annex, juvenile detention center, maintenance shop, Rescue/Training Center, road department and Sheriff’s office/Detention Center, among others.

“Judge [Joseph] Wood and his team challenged us to help them think outside the box and bring fresh innovation in serving the people of Washington County,” said Alex Ray, director of business development for performance infrastructure, Arkansas of Johnson Controls Inc. “We are proud and honored to deliver such a milestone project for the county and region.”

It is not the first solar project Seal Solar and JCI have collaborated on.

In August 2019, Jefferson County officials unveiled their newly installed solar array providing power to public buildings. The solar panels, located on the property of the detention center in Pine Bluff, were the first county-owned solar array in the state.

Arkansas had its biggest year of solar installation ever in 2018, according to a market report by GMT Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. The report notes that Arkansas had only 22 megawatts of solar power at the end of 2017, but then saw its totals rise 552 percent in 2018.

A new surge of solar projects followed the passage of Act 464 of 2019. That legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Dave Wallace, provided local governments, schools, churches, state agencies and non-profits to benefit from federal incentives and unlock capital for investment in local communities. It cut costs and timelines on solar projects through provisions that increase the size limit of commercial net-metered solar arrays from 300 kilowatts to 1 megawatt.

The array in Jefferson County generates approximately 176 kilowatts of power.

In October 2019, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde announced a 20-year agreement with Today’s Power Inc. (TPI) to develop and install solar panels at the Little Rock Port Industrial Park and Pulaski County Justice Complex.

That project had dual goals of protecting public safety and reducing energy costs, Hyde said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics.

The first step of the project was a road and bridge test on 1.2 miles of Lawson Road in west Pulaski County using asphalt modified with recycled tire rubber. The road paving project was completed in September 2019 at a cost of more than $192,000, officials said, and will be evaluated each year to compare wear-and-tear in comparison to traditional asphalt.

Pulaski County also worked with Today’s Power Inc. (TPI) to provide 8 megawatts of solar power for county use. TPI financed, owns and operates the solar arrays located on nearly 40 acres at the Port Authority’s industrial park and 12 acres at the county Justice Complex.

Under the 20-year power purchase agreement, the county will buy electricity generated by the arrays at 4.9 cents per kilowatt hour over 20 years. The project is expected to generate between 80 percent and 100 percent of the county’s electric demand, powering buildings such as the courthouse and jail among other facilities. Savings in the first year was estimated at $150,000.

Howard County set out to save money and to improve county operations by generating enough solar power to pay for a new HVAC system for the courthouse and eliminate a building chilling system that was built in the 1970s.

“The county needed to consider how to address deferred maintenance within the county facilities at no cost or at a low-cost approach,” County Judge Kevin Smith said.

Planning for the solar system in Howard County began around June 2019, and the panels were activated in December 2019. The 240-kilowatt system is located in Nashville on roughly three acres of land owned by the county.

That system was built by the Seattle-based design and construction company McKinstry for $1.85 million dollars. McKinstry has a three-year contract to assist Howard County in the verification of the production. The county is responsible for the operation and maintenance that includes cleaning the panels, maintaining the yard and landscaping, and conducting annual ground tests.

The whole project was financed at a budget-neutral savings guarantee approach for 20 years. It will realize a cash value of roughly $600,000 over the useful life of the solar system, Judge Smith said.

The $1.85 million project was funded through a tax-exempt lease purchase and will offset almost 100 percent of the county’s electrical utility expenditure. It is expected to save the county roughly $97,000 annually.

“By including the solar part of the whole project, the county will able to replace its HVAC system in the courthouse, thus increase the comfort of those that work and do business there, while lowering the cost to operate,” Judge Smith said. “It created $18 million worth of improvements without any direct cost or tax increases to our constituents.”

Judge Clark Hall in Phillips County is preparing to sign a contract for a solar plant. He plans for construction to begin this fall. A separate project in Ouachita County is on hold for now, according to Judge Robbie McAdoo. And Sebastian County is in the process of researching a solar project, according to Judge David Hudson.

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