Something new under the sun

by | Apr 1, 2018 | Features

Clarksville’s 42-acre solar plant is highly visible along Interstate 40, its twenty-thousand plus solar panels reflective and geometric. Once inside the plant’s gates, visitors find a surprisingly simple setup: the panels themselves are attached to steel beams, a few wires, and metal boxes connected to the city grid. The panels are lined up in long rows and installed on a tracking system, following the light from the sun like sunflowers, an oscillating design that allows for maximum energy output.
This plant is Arkansas’s third largest solar plant and its only municipal one. According to Clarksville Power and Light, the t6.5.megawatt plant produces enough energy for 20 percent of Clarksville’s city needs, that’s enough to power the city’s Hane’s plant. Clarksville City and Light savings run at an estimated $500,000 annually compared to traditional energy sources.
John Lester is the general manager of Clarksville Light and Water, a position he’s held since 2013. In his office on the second floor of the downtown municipal building, there is a large screen near his desk connected to a webcam of the solar plant modules allowing him to monitor the panels and their energy output throughout the day. A former city manager of both Herman, Missouri, and Chanute, Kansas, John was the driving force behind the creation of the plant.
When asked what sparked his vision, he explains that while working for a power agency in Missouri ( a group of cities that banded together to purchase power collectively), he saw some members putting in solar plants. “Knowing the key players,” John explains, “I knew the economics had to work or they wouldn’t be doing it.” John began exploring the idea of a solar plant in Clarksville back in 2016. “We hoped that by 2018 it would make sense in our budget to start a project,” he says. But things went much faster than expected. The entire plant was operational by December of 2017, putting the project six months ahead of schedule.
Solar power has proven to be substantially less extractive than fossil-fuel sources like coal or gas. Solar plants decrease emissions by over 215,000 metric tons and make use of one of our most renewable resources: sunlight. Clarksville Power and Light notes that this decrease in emission is roughly equivalent to driving more than 516 million fewer passenger car miles or eliminating the burning of more than 229 million pounds of coal or planting more than 5.5 million trees. But what makes Clarksville’s plant unique is its position as a key energy source in a largely energy independent municipality.
Clarksville Light and Water was founded in 1913, operating under a Utility Commission form of governance. It’s considered a political subdivision of the city of Clarksville. Since the 1940s it has owned its own electrical utilities. There are only 14 cities in the state that can claim this distinction. In addition to the solar plant, the system’s utilities include a 61-megawatt peak electric system, 16 million gallons per day (MGD) water plant, and a 2.5 MGD water treatment facility. And they have recently begun to construct a high bandwidth and high capacity fiber optic utility which can deliver data at multi-gigabite speeds.
“Early in the 1900s when electricity was brand new technology,” John explains, “it was typically large and investor owned.” The large companies didn’t see the need to invest in rural communities, so Clarksville decided to do it for themselves. Early city leaders knew this would make the city an economic player and give the community an independence and economic freedom other places could not offer. John notes that this is one of the main reasons Clarksville was able to create the solar energy system it has today. He notes there were arguments claiming this venture as too complicated for cities to handle. “We see the same arguments today around broad band,” he adds. “It’s amazing how the same stories stick around.”
For Clarksville, the investment in their own electrical system proved to be a smart one. “Clarksville is also unique in that we have a separate utility board,” John explains. “We don’t report to elected officials.” He notes that while he doesn’t have to answer directly to politicians he does communicate with the city council about all plans and decisions. He says that his days as a city manager give him insight into the reasons elected officials have to be risk averse and notes that it’s easy to get bogged down in the quagmire of city government. But John says the separate utility board and a forward thinking city culture gives Clarksville Light and Water the ability to run the company like a business while directing those benefits and revenue back into the community.
When asked how he felt about the risk of creating such a plant in a small town he noted that the economics were already clear. “It wasn’t on the bleeding edge,” he explains. “But yes, for rural American, small town Arkansas, it’s out of the box.”
An equal player in the creation of the plant is former Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, now the CEO of Scenic Hill Solar, the company that beat out two others to gain the plant’s contract. Bill says that John is being overly modest in talking about the leading role Clarksville is taking. “The easy path is not to do this, to take the same old path,” he explains. But Clarksville, he says, “is leaning in.”
Bill says that when he’s not worked in public service he’s always been drawn to technology companies. “Right now this is one of the best opportunities in technology that is beneficial to society, that is cost effective, that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Halter explains. “Clarksville Light and Water,” Halter adds, “is taking a posture designed to enhance their attractiveness for the 21st Century.”
John notes that the plant’s location on I-40 certainly wasn’t an accident. And, he added, the Board is taking a proactive and open stance toward centering the plant as part of their community marketing, noting the plant’s proximity to the soon-to-be created tech park on I-40. With the city’s strategic position nearly halfway between Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas, they plan to attract the eye of large companies who have increasing sustainability commitments. “If a town can’t provide renewable energy,” Bill explains, “it won’t be in the game.”
While John speaks to the city’s goal of attracting outside business, he’s equally interested in showcasing the plant’s direct benefits to the city and utility customers. There’s a bit more expense on the front end, he explains, but the savings come from changes in how the energy is created and transferred. Clarksville pays 5.5 cents for the kilowatts of energy which is a slight premium compared to the 5.3 cents paid for energy generated from other sources. But the savings come from how the energy is transmitted and demand. Solar power shaves off energy peak charges saving consumers 250 thousand dollars a year. Halter notes that these savings will be locked in going forward: There are no fuel costs and no one is charging for sunshine. Unlike gas or coal, solar is not susceptible to the volatility of fuel markets. “And it’s written into the contract that the city can purchase the plant in seven years,” says Bill.
To make the investment work for both the company and the city, the contract works like this: Clarksville Light and Water is a nonprofit and thus able to borrow funds at a lower interest rate than the private sector. But what it can’t do is take advantage of tax credits, which are currently available for the creation of renewable energy technology, “We can monetize those tax incentives in a way Clarksville cannot,” says Bill. “But after seven years the incentives have fully monetized.” At that point Clarksville will have the option of purchasing the plant at a given price. Owning the asset will bring increased savings that can then be passed along to consumers. It will also bring another layer of energy independence to the small town.
Both John and Bill are quick to name the benefits and job creation the construction of the plant brought to the city. The construction process, explains John, employed more than 120 specific people from the region. Jobs included construction positions, electrical work, and driving heavy machinery. Once the plant was set up, however, that number changes dramatically. “There is not a whole lot that is required in the day to day,” John says. “In fact it’s just monitoring and the occasional repair.” This, he says, is another form of savings the city can pass on to its electricity customers.
The feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, says John. People around the region have been calling to speak with him about how he brought the plan to life in a rural municipality. Sure, there are misconceptions around how the plant works, on cloudy days for example. But Bill says people are beginning to see that solar is in a different league than it was even five years ago. “The numbers have changed dramatically in five years. There are 20 thousand modules out there,” he says pointing to John ’s large screen webcam. “And those modules have come down 75 percent.” It’s also easy to care for and the modules are slated to last for 30-plus years. “The only moving part in the whole plant setup is the tracking system.”
Clarksville certainly isn’t the only city accessing solar power. But its local ownership provides a new level of energy independence and savings that can’t be said for other cities. Currently Clarksville’s system is the third largest in the state, but by far the largest municipal. “It’s five times the size of the closest municipal utility,” says Bill. In most cases solar plants pass on their savings to the private sector. But due in part to the decisions of city leaders back in the 1940s, Clarksville is entering the world of solar with a greater deal of independence. There is already talk of putting in another plant. Solar is a method of non-extractive energy production that is also an additive to the community. “Those resources wind up back in Clarksville,” says John, “in the local employment and in the local tax base.”

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