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Public school solar power

Thanks to new state incentives, two Arkansas School Districts have been able to cut power costs by nearly half-and generate financial savings to potentially hire more teachers-with a co-located solar power array.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The new Arkansas Solar Access Act has blown the doors off interest in solar power investment in the southeastern state. Two beneficiaries, the Cedar Ridge and Midland School Districts, will soon be saving money on power purchased from a 1.36-megawatt (MW) solar array, potentially freeing up money to hire more teachers.

The power they purchase from the solar array costs almost half per kilowatt hour of what they were paying from power generated by their fossil fuel powered utility.

Construction of the recently completed solar project began in early 2020, and it is on the brink of coming online.

The districts have signed a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Entegrity Partners, a solar power developer and energy efficiency and sustainability consultant based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their single-axis tracking solar array is located on eight acres owned by the Cedar Ridge School District, which is about 100 miles northeast of Little Rock.

The district will consume about 800 kWs of the 1.36 MW of power produced and estimates that it will save over $65,000 per year in power costs. The remaining solar energy produced by the array will be consumed by the nearby Midland School District.

Cedar Ridge and Midland had an established relationship with Entegrity Partners, with Cedar Ridge saving another $145,000 in annual energy and maintenance costs through various past initiatives recommended by the company. They previously converted the entire district to LED lighting technology, scheduled temperature controls across the district, and replaced 100 flush valves and faucets with low-flow systems.

Entegrity Partners develops solar projects in the range of one-half to five megawatts and recently acquired a company with 20 years of experience in solar power installation. This now allows Entegrity Partners to install their own projects. They conduct business throughout the U.S. and internationally.

"We have ramped up our solar services to meet the demand simply because the solar market in Arkansas has gotten really, really big. What happened at Cedar Ridge and Midland School Districts is going to happen many more times in the state over the next year," says Rick Vance, regional director at Entegrity Partners.

The passage of the state's Solar Access Act in spring 2019 allowed public entities like schools, hospitals, universities, state agencies, and municipalities to leverage PPAs and net metering to reduce their energy bills from solar arrays funded, designed, and operated by solar developers like Entegrity Partners. It has been described as one of the most favorable net metering laws in the U.S. Recognizing this opportunity, both Cedar Ridge and Midland School Districts signed a PPA with Entegrity Partners.

 
  

The solar radiance resource in Arkansas is quite good, rated as the eleventh best in the U.S., according to Vance, and the eastern half of the state is relatively flat with plenty of affordable wide-open space conducive to solar farms.

"We can sell power cheaper than what our clients are currently paying," Vance says. "Because of the Solar Access Act, all these public clients that we've developed through our energy efficiencies programs now want to do solar."

Through its third-party financing program, Entegrity Partners takes advantage of the federal tax credit program-at the time contracts were signed with Cedar Ridge and Midland School Districts, it was 30 percent. Right now, it is at 26 percent for 2020, and for 2021 it is scheduled to drop to 22 percent.

"So if you are a federal taxpayer in the U.S. and you do solar, you can get 26 percent of your costs back," says Vance.

Previously, entities like these school districts did not have access to this tax credit because they don't pay federal taxes. But Entegrity Partners can access this tax credit. The company seeks out federal tax credit investors who want to take advantage of that significant tax break as well as accelerated depreciation, enabling the company to fund solar projects they design, build, and maintain while offering an attractive power rate to customers.

Cedar Ridge partnered with Midland School District to become the first districts in the state to use co-located solar energy technology. Co-location means that two solar arrays are installed on the same site.Midland did not have a site available to construct an array, while Cedar Ridge had a site with excess space. By physically co-locating their solar arrays, something allowed in Arkansas, the districts leveraged economies of scale such as using the same interconnection to the grid, resulting in a better PPA rate.

 
 

The Cedar Ridge solar project was negatively impacted slightly by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the disruption of supply chains was minimal, with U.S. production points ensuring arrival of materials in a timely manner.

  

However, each school district has a separate meter for each array so they can measure how much solar power each array produces for net meter crediting purposes. There was sufficient transmission capacity to absorb the power generated by the Entegrity Partners project, but they paid for the interconnection, which was located nearby and an important factor regarding the project's feasibility.

"We are thrilled to work with Entegrity on yet another energy savings project," says Andy Ashley, former Cedar Ridge School District superintendent, who oversaw both energy efficiency initiatives with Entegrity Partners during his tenure with the school district between 2015 and 2020.

"Not only are we saving money, we are improving the learning environment for our students, and we are teaching them sustainable practices. I am proud to be a part of the first co-located solar array in the state, and I encourage more small districts in the state to explore the same." He recently accepted a new position as superintendent of the Heber Springs School District starting this school year.

Midland School District superintendent Dewayne Wammack expressed similar sentiments as Ashley as it relates to the benefits his district will realize from purchasing solar power from this array.

"We knew we wanted to benefit from solar, so we decided to collaborate with one of our neighboring districts by installing a co-located array," he says. "I encourage more small districts in the state to explore all options available before ruling it out."

Vance says that installing a tracking system was critical for the Cedar Ridge project to deliver the highest production possible per cost of installation. A fixed mount system would have required a much larger footprint.

 

The Cedar Ridge solar array is equipped with OMCO's new, trademarked Origin tracker technology, a factory-direct, single-axis tracker that increases energy production, reduces onsite labor, and reduces build time and costs, thus making solar a more affordable option.

 
  

"When we use trackers, our ratios get really, really good, and our rates that we can sell to our clients come down," Vance says.

The Cedar Ridge solar array is equipped with OMCO's new, trademarked Origin tracker technology. It is a factory-direct, single-axis tracker that increases energy production, reduces onsite labor, and cuts build time and costs, thus making solar a more affordable option. Generally, use of a tracking versus a fixed-mount racking system improves production anywhere from 17 percent to 30 percent depending on where in the world the system is installed.

OMCO launched its Origin system in 2019. The Cedar Ridge solar array was its second commercial deployment, and since then, interest in Origin has taken off. OMCO will install about 20 projects with this technology in 2020 and expects significant growth in 2021.

The Origin system, which features 60-degree tracking range, reduces onsite labor and cuts build time and costs because it can support 120 modules compared to only 90 from most of OMCO's competitors, says the company. This also results in fewer controllers, motors, and foundations on a site.

Eric Goodwin, OMCO director of Business Development, says the factory pre-assembled components, consisting of bearings and module mounts, are easy to install and the Origin system features fewer material items to install than other systems. The company makes 100 percent of the structural components including torque tubes in four factories located in the U.S., and given the location of these factories, this reduces freight costs and significantly reduces delivery lead times.

"OMCO introduced their field-tested Origin tracker product to the world last fall, and we really liked their module compatibility, module clamping style, motor and drive engineering, and of course, most importantly, staff," says Vance.

He adds that OMCO has a long history in the industry as a racking supplier, including First Solar's proprietary racking system. Modules for the Cedar Ridge project were supplied by Talesun. The Highpower 125 kW inverters on the project were supplied by SMA.

The project was negatively impacted slightly by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the disruption of supply chains was minimal with U.S. production points ensuring arrival of materials in a timely manner. Additionally, because construction was federally deemed as essential work, there was consistent progress toward completion.

Because the solar array itself is located within an existing agriculture education field, it was important for Entegrity Partners to communicate with instructors to ensure that the location of the array would allow them to continue to use the site for educational purposes. The instructors can also incorporate some of the aspects of solar power generation into their sustainable agriculture practices training.

The school districts also plan to use the array as a handy teaching tool for students at their schools, with field trip opportunities right outside their doors.

 


Summer 2020