alternative energy

ASSOCIATED PRESS

New data from Arkansas's investor-owned utilities and electrical cooperatives offers evidence that the number of private solar and wind electricity generators is surging. Whether that's fair market forces or a looming, potentially gloomy regulatory decision on rates is up for debate.

Solar power generators, also known as "net metering customers," jumped 56 percent in 2017, from 632 to 988. That's a fraction of the 1.4 million customers in the state who's rates are set by an agency called the Public Service Commission. 

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The Arkansas Public Service Commission is expected to close a docket soon that could substantially lower a cash incentive for Arkansans (and Arkansas companies) who invest in solar and wind energy production.

The commission is the representative authority over investor-owned utilities, sanctioned monopolies. The commission can affect utility rates — that is, bills. The docket’s been open for three years.

At issue is something called “net metering,” the act of sending electricity (generated by solar power system or windmill) out onto the grid from home or business and getting bill credits from the electrical utility. Created by Act 1781 of 2001, Arkansas’s net metering rate structure currently is 1-to-1. 

Anne Cusack / LA TIMES via GETTY IMAGES

Friday is the deadline for two sides to file arguments with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the state's three-member panel that sets usage and administrative rates for most utilities in the state.

At issue is "distributed energy generation" — private, typically small solar and wind power systems in the state — and the state's net metering program, whereby those systems get credits worth the full retail rate for every kilowatt-hour they export onto the electrical grid.

Utility companies want to make those credits much smaller. Solar power investors, both private and corporate, as well as advocacy groups like Audubon Arkansas and the Sierra Club that celebrate renewable energy, want further examination of the issue (and no immediate change in rates).

Dogwood Alliance

In 2017, Arkansas Public Media began to investigate the proliferation of industrial chip mills across the Deep South, including a newly opened mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The mills are grinding timber stands into millions of tons of wood pellets for export to fuel retrofitted coal fire plants in the European Union and United Kingdom, where biomass is classified and subsidized as clean renewable fuel.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission can be thankful this season for some very outspoken electricity customers. More than 200, mostly private residents have published comments ahead of a public hearing Nov. 30 on Docket 16-027-R, proposed changes to net metering.

Net metering is a utility industry term. When big electricity providers like Entergy, SWEPCo and the electrical cooperatives send electricity into a home, it's "metered," typically by the kilowatt-hour. The transportation lines between power plants and customers is called the grid. When customers with solar panels or windmills produce more electricity than they consume, they can push electricity back out onto that grid and get credits from the power company. Thus, consumption may be offset by contribution.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

More than 150 wood pellet manufacturing mills operate across the U.S., many supplying the domestic woodstove pellet market with home heating fuel.

More than a quarter are industrial pellet mills, grinding thousands of acres of forest into biomass for overseas export to electrical utilities stoking retrofitted coal-fire furnaces with "densified" wood.

The largest mills, concentrated in the southeastern U.S., claim to sustainably harvest timber, from both hardwood and softwood forests. But a new mill, Highland Pellets in Pine Bluff, which harvests only fast-growing Southern softwood pine may be among the greenest.

Still, the calculated ecological costs and benefits of forest biomass remain hazy.