Story by Kyle Massey - Arkansas Business Publishing Group
After commissioning a five-acre sun farm for First Electric Cooperative in Benton on a bright and warm Wednesday morning, Chris Burnley said he's been on a "solar coaster" ride.
Burnley, the business development and marketing chief for Today's Power Inc., which installed the one-megawatt Benton array, didn't coin the term. But Arkansas Electric Cooperatives CEO Duane Highley underlined his point: "One megawatt of solar energy is added every 36 minutes" in the United States, he told the dignitaries in attendance.
Burnley and Matt Irving, Today's Power's director of operations, said the company has been on a frenzied pace through its two years of existence as a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. of Little Rock. Wednesday's dedication of the one-megawatt field in Benton was the eighth project Burnley's colleagues have finished, and another array near Bearden is nearly complete. That one-megawatt field, Ouachita Electric Cooperative, is expected to go online in June.
"We have other projects underway, and more in the planning stages," Burnley said. "The changes are coming fast in the solar industry and prices are dropping."
Members of First Electric Cooperative Corp.'s board of directors were on hand to throw a large symbolic switch to "turn on" the 3,840 durable photovoltaic panels a short walk from First Electric's Congo Operations Center on Old Congo Road. But the solar field, which at peak production times can power 100 to 125 homes, had been in operation for more than a week. It is expected to generate nearly 48 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy over 25 years, and the panels are built to withstand golf-ball size hail.
Burnley climbed onto one of the panels and practically did a tap-dance. "These are sturdy, safe to touch, and built to last," he said, climbing down. "There are different ways that the 17 distributive electric cooperatives in the state are offering solar power to its members. Some are offering a members a chance to buy the power from specific solar panels, but First Electric is putting this power onto the grid for all of the 92,000 homes and businesses it serves in 18 counties of central and southeast Arkansas."
Burnley said Irving deserves great credit for the project's success. "He put in tons of the blood, sweat, and tears for this project to make deadline."
"First Electric is dedicated to providing our members with safe, reliable electricity in a cost-effective manner," said Don Crabbe, CEO and president of FECC, which is based in Jacksonville. "Our board works to meet the needs of our membership both today and in the future. Our members will all share in the benefits from the renewable energy produced by this solar field."
The co-op also hopes to use it as an educational site for youth groups and school field trips.
The array captures the sun's rays when they beam down directly on the photovoltaic panels and when they bounce off reflective panels opposite the ones that generate electricity. "The solar panels face west, while the reflector panels face east," Irving said. "The system follows the load curve of the cooperatives."
A crew of nine workers from Today's Power were among about 20 who spent about three months putting up the array, which makes use of cinderblock ballast to stay in place. "Considering engineering work and all, there may have been 50 people who worked in construction of the project," Burnley said. Today's Power now has projects in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and the company is in growth mode, Burnley said.
"I'm flying out to South Dakota in a couple of weeks to talk to the CEOs of the electric co-ops there," Burnley said. "It's not really a sales pitch, but more like an educational session to let them know what we've been doing with solar around here. Since I started at Today's Power about a year ago, I've been pushing for us to extend our boundaries and work well beyond Arkansas."
On Wednesday, fittingly, the whole Today's Power team was wearing shades, including company President Michael W. Henderson, who is also executive vice president and CFO at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.
Along with Crabbe and Harry Hamlin, attorney for the board, FECC directors in attendance were Tracy Hudspeth of Drasco; Larry Wood of Lonoke; David Luebke of Scott; Tom Hasty Jr. of Almyra; Rick Love of Jacksonville; Karissa Rushing of Benton; Jimmie Crockett of Rose Bud; Robert Maertens of Benton; and Robert Hill of Perryville.