What Could Be Crazier Than Arkansas Solar Power For GM Factories?

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Arkansas ranks a lowly #33 in the nation for solar power even though it has plenty of sun, but it is about to shake off the dust and dive into the PV pool. Last December, ground broke on the biggest solar array in the state, two more are in the pipeline, and just yesterday GM announced that it will kickstart another project that will be the biggest of all. That marks a significant breakthrough for the clean energy transition in the US, demonstrating that states can foster a green COVID-19 recovery and create new green jobs despite the lack of support from White House policy makers.

solar power GM First Solar Arkansas
This high tech First Solar solar panel factory will spit out 180 megawatts in solar power for automaker GM, courtesy of the great state of Arkansas.

More Solar Power For Arkansas

To put things in perspective, the Solar Energy Industries Association ran the numbers on Arkansas through the second quarter of this year, and came up with a total installed capacity of just 238.37 megawatts spread out among 2,054 installations, thus earning the not-so-coveted #33 slot among the 50 US states for installed solar capacity.

That’s actually an uptick since last year, when the self-appointed Natural State nailed down the #36 slot for solar power.

Uncertainty over the state’s net metering policy hasn’t helped the local rooftop solar industry, and who knows what has been bottling up utility scale arrays. If you know, drop us a line in the comment thread.

The biggest solar power plant in the state weighs in at an unimpressive 81 megawatts, but signs of change are in the wind.

Last December, ground broke on the state’s biggest solar array to date, at 100 megawatts. In April, Lightsource BP won approval for a 132 megawatt array in White County, and in June the utility Entergy won approval to build another 100 megawatt array in White County, along with 10 megawatts of energy storage.

In the latest development, GM has thrown its hat into the ring, with a commitment to buy all of the solar power from a 180 megawatt solar array originally developed by First Solar, Inc.

Doing the math, that’s a pretty impressive jump up from Q2 of 2020, and there is plenty more coming down the pipeline.

Wait, Why Is GM Buying Solar From Arkansas?

That’s a good question. CleanTechnica is reaching out to GM to see what’s up with the Arkansas angle.

Meanwhile, one answer is that GM has realized that putting solar solar panels on the roofs of its factories can only go so far when the aim is total decarbonization.

With that in mind, last year GM raised the renewable energy bar with a deal to purchase 300,000 megawatt-hours in wind energy through the Michigan utility DTE. The commitment kickstarted the development of three new wind farms, and GM added solar to the mix in April with another commitment of 500,000 megawatt-hours of renewables through DTE.

The two clean power purchases were in support of DTE’s “MIGreen” clean power program. GM’s large-scale buy-ins help motivate developers to build new wind farms and solar power plants, which means that other ratepayers in search of clean kilowatts also benefit.

Arkansas Becomes Solar Power Powerhouse

GM’s new Arkansas solar deal could have a similar ripple effect on solar development in Arknsas, because it positions the state as a solar power exporter.

The arrangement involves a power purchase agreement, in which GM will dedicate all 180 megawatts of solar power to three out-of-state facilities: the Wentzville Assembly in Missouri, and the Lansing Delta Township Assembly and Lansing Grand River Assembly in Michigan.

The GM solar deal could also help vault the US solar manufacturing industry back onto the world stage. The solar project’s original developer, First Solar, is also manufacturing the solar panels for the array.

In a press release, the automaker noted that First Solar is the only US-headquartered manufacturer to win a slot among the largest nine firms in the world.

First Solar CCO Georges Antoun also noted that “GM’s investment supports the use of solar technology, innovated and developed by First Solar in the United States, to power factories that form the core of the Midwest’s industrial resurgence.”

Who Is The Biggest Solar Power Off-Taker In The US?

GM describes the First Solar deal as a milestone, because it pushes GM over the 1 gigawatt bar for renewable electricity in use. The goal is to hit 100% renewable electricity for its US operations by 2030, and the addition of the 180 megawatt Arkansas plant will enable GM to hit the 60% mark after it goes online in 2023.

All else being equal, that won’t make GM the #1 clean power off-taker in the US. As of July 2020, the US Environmental Protection Agency awarded the top slot in its Green Power Partners program to Google (surprise!). However, GM was the only hardcore manufacturer to make it onto the top 15, coming in at #14. The other slots are dominated by tech firms, banks, and retailers.

EPA also recognized GM last month, when it released the 2020 results for its Green Power Leadership Awards program.

I know, right? Why is EPA promoting green power when the Commander-in-Chief is trying to save coal jobs?

Who knows! Regardless of White House policy, the Green Power awards are still a thing, and the 2020 field narrowed down to just four awardees in the Excellence in Leadership Category.

GM won its spot for bumping its clean kilowatts up from 10% to 31% and for its role in negotiating the MIGreenPower green tariff. EPA notes that Shiloh Industries, the Detroit Zoo, and the University of Michigan are among the many Michigan companies and other entities enjoying the tariff.

With Solar In Its Pocket, What’s Next For Arkansas?

Now that utility scale solar power is revving up in Arkansas, what’s next? For an answer, we turn to the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. As part of the nation’s sprawling Rural Electric Cooperative (socialism!) network, Arkansas’s electric cooperatives were formed in the wake of the Great Depression and they enjoy a regulatory platform that encourages innovation for the public good.

The Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation operates three hydropower facilities in the state, but if you’re thinking floating solar panels could be on the menu, guess again. The three hydropower stations are run-of-the-river, meaning they operate on flow-through and do not  come with a conventional dam and reservoir.

AECC’s activity in the solar area is rather thin, although it does account for 23 megawatts through various in-state solar arrays.

The organization also has power purchase agreements for 373 megawatts in wind power, and its website indicates a growing interest in wind power. AECC is also emphasizing price stability as a benefit of clean power, shielding its members from the potential for volatility in the natural gas market.

The wind power angle is interesting. Although Arkansas is located right next to wind-happy Oklahoma, it got the short end of the wind resources stick. Arkansas’s in-state wind resources are less than optimal, which may explain the American Wind Energy Association’s latest assessment is zero installed wind capacity.

On the other hand, AWEA takes note of AECC’s out-of-state wind power purchases, putting the current total at 474 megawatts.

The main point is that Arkansas is a wind importer and is on its way to becoming a solar exporter. Renewable energy is becoming a fluid commodity around the 50 states, regardless of their in-state energy resources or political obstacles.

Nevertheless, some states have a built-in advantage in the clean power race because they have access to offshore wind resources or are located in the prime solar and onshore wind regions. An assist from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would help level the playing field and enable states like Arkansas accelerate their wind and solar manufacturing industries in addition to bringing lower, more stable rates to electricity customers.

That could happen if clean energy voters take their case to the polls on Election Day. Considering the staying power of the US renewable energy sector during the COVID-19 crisis, clean energy voters will most likely fare better than coal voters, who were sold a bill of goods in the 2016 General Election and are left holding the bag while the rest of the energy world moves on.

For that matter, the appeal to saving coal jobs was always a not-so-thinly-veiled appeal to racism, and now that the US coal industry is collapsing the only thing left for the 2020 campaign is racism.

Early voting in Arkansas starts on October 19, so hold onto your hats.

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Photo: “First Solar is a pioneer in PV module circularity, recovering as much as 90 percent of the materials, including its CadTel semiconductor, from every module processed at its recycling facilities in Ohio” (via GM, courtesy of First Solar, Inc.)

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3141 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey