Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Pulaski County government's solar power projects on target to provide 90% of its electricity needs
Twin concerns over rising costs and climate change have prompted some county officials in Arkansas to begin moving power needs to renewable energy sources, with solar power one of the primary alternate sources to keep the lights on.
In 2019, Pulaski County entered into an agreement to eventually replace as much as 90% of the power it buys from Entergy Arkansas with solar arrays built by Today's Power Inc. of North Little Rock, a subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives. The arrangement the county has with Today's Power has already resulted in significant cost savings, said Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, through a 250-kilowatt solar array system constructed near the Pulaski County jail, with more savings on the way following approval to construct a 4.6-megawatt system at the Little Rock Port.
Once that system is online, Hyde said, the county will receive nearly 90% of its electricity through renewable solar power generation. A companion project consisting of a two-phase energy performance upgrade to all county buildings was just completed, which he said has already begun saving the county money and will soon save even more.
The idea, Hyde said, was to reduce the cost per kilowatt-hour the county spends on electricity while reducing overall electrical consumption as well, which he said once completed will save the county close to $1 million a year.
According to a study conducted in 2016, Pulaski County was purchasing roughly 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost of nearly $1.4 million annually. In addition, through a performance contract with Entegrity -- a Little Rock-based energy consulting company accredited by the National Association of Energy Service Companies -- all county-owned buildings were assessed in two phases, the first of which included some 40 buildings including the jail, and the second of which evaluated and upgraded the county administration building.
"We went into every facility in Pulaski County government and did the evaluation of what our usage was," Hyde said. "That was electrical, lighting, air conditioning, usage of water -- which doesn't even sound like something you would work on but when you have a 1,200-bed jail, how much water is being used is a big deal -- and we just finished our final building, the administration building, the first of this year."
Hyde said lighting in all county buildings was upgraded to energy efficient LED lighting, HVAC systems -- some more than 50 years old -- were replaced, sealed double-paned windows were installed, and high-efficiency low-flow water systems were installed. Completion of the first phase of upgrades, Hyde said, resulted in savings of about $500,000 annually to the county. The second phase, which was the just-completed upgrades to the county administration building, should result in about an additional $200,000 in savings. Once the shift to solar is complete, additional savings of about $250,000 are projected.
"Currently we pay about 7.4 cents per kilowatt-hour across the county," Hyde said, for power purchased from Entergy Arkansas at the commercial rate, which he said is set by the Public Service Commission. "Under this agreement with completion of the second phase of solar generation, we'll be paying 4.9 cents per kilowatt-hour."
Under the terms of the contract with Today's Power Inc., Hyde said the solar arrays that will power the county will belong to Today's Power, which funded the construction and will sell the power generated to the county at the reduced rate per kilowatt-hour.
A kilowatt-hour, expressed as kWh, is a measure of energy equivalent to a power consumption of 1,000 watts for one hour. For example, a 100-watt light bulb will use one kWh of electricity over a 10-hour period. A 1,000-watt appliance will consume one kWh of electricity in one hour.
To further reduce Pulaski County's reliance on fossil fuels, Hyde said, he is exploring the idea of converting the county's vehicle fleet to electric.
"Tentatively our plan is to get our infrastructure planned and the financing in place sometime in the next year," he said. "That will be another place for savings and another opportunity with our solar production."
Contracting with a solar provider to install a facility and sell the power back to the county is one method being used by some counties. Another is to install facilities wholly owned by the county. In 2018, Jefferson County chose that route when it contracted with the Wisconsin-based buildings, technology, services and infrastructure company Johnson Controls Inc. to oversee the design and development of the county's energy reduction initiative, which included a 176-kilowatt solar power array installed by North Little Rock-based Seal Solar.
In August 2019, county officials flipped the switch on the array constructed at a cost of $2.3 million and paid for through utility savings costs guaranteed by Johnson Controls. Under the terms of the agreement, Jefferson County borrowed money to pay for the array and the construction costs. If the cost savings in a given year aren't sufficient to make the annual payment, Johnson Controls is contractually obligated to make up the difference, a provision that County Judge Gerald Robinson said was a big selling point in generating support for the project.
"At the end of the year, if we don't save enough money to make the payment, Johnson Controls will write us a check to make up the difference," Robinson said. "I call that a win-win."
According to Alex Ray, director of business development for Arkansas, the array, which is situated adjacent to Martha Mitchell Expressway in Pine Bluff next to the county's juvenile justice complex, supplies about 40% of the power needs to the complex.
"That means that each year since the facility has been in operation, Jefferson County is writing checks to Entergy that are 40% smaller than in previous years," Ray said.
Although Jefferson County was the first county to install its own solar power array, it isn't the last. According to the Association of Arkansas Counties, a number of county governments have elected to purchase solar power arrays.
In May 2020, Washington County went online with a rooftop mounted solar array consisting of a 5,400 panel system in Fayetteville with a 2 megawatt capacity. Like Jefferson County, the array was installed by Seal Solar and is part of a performance contract with Johnson Controls which includes upgrades in lighting, HVAC, water conservation retrofits and energy-efficient building upgrades.
According to the Arkansas Association of Counties, the system is expected to save Washington County taxpayers roughly $10 million in electrical costs over 10 years.
In December 2019, Howard County activated a 240-kilowatt system built on three acres at a cost of $1.85 million that was projected to save the county about $100,000 a year.
The arrangements various counties have entered into came about as the result of legislation passed in 2019 that allowed third-party financing of solar projects to tax-exempt organizations and government entities that otherwise would not qualify for federal tax incentives for installing solar panels. Other legislation passed the same year allows government entities to issue bonds for energy savings projects and allows energy performance contracts to extend beyond 20 years if the project is guaranteed to last more than 20 years, and if the project's useful life is more than 20 years.
For county judges like Hyde, Robinson and others, the arrangements represent significant cost savings while reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.