Sunday, March 29, 2015

mopping up...

Kings River substation site.
We asked for what was deemed impossible and managed to stop SWEPCO from building an extra high voltage power line through Northwest Arkansas that would have ended at the field shown in the photo above.

Following the SWEPCO debacle, that posed the threat of tearing our community apart, but brought it together in united opposition instead, we have a few mopping up exercises to do. The APSC refused to require SWEPCO to pay our legal fees. We knew that we would win in the long run, even if that required standing in front of bulldozers, so not being awarded legal fees is OK. We won.

On the other hand, SWEPCO paid $600,000 for a 40 acre cowpasture on the Kings River that was intended as their extra high voltage substation site. That site would have served as the connecting point for a whole series of extra high voltage power lines running off to the north and east. We are now hoping that we can divert that site to a more wholesome use, as a solar park/garden that would serve our community in better ways than being the destination for an unnecessary power line that would have torn our community in half.

So, between assembling and sanding small objects to ship to Appalachian Spring Gallery in D.C. I am working with our attorneys on a settlement proposal that would clear the air between my small environmental organization Save the Ozarks (STO), and SWEPCO/AEP and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC).

Here is what I have in mind, based on conversations with a variety of parties, including the head of the design firm that built a 40 acre solar farm for City Utilities in Springfield, Missouri.

Sites of this size have been used to hold as many as 28,000 solar panels. We would want to have far fewer than that so that it would be more of a demonstration project, having multiple uses, including a community organic vegetable garden, and features including the display and growth of native plants. We would want adequate green space to keep if from appearing as just one more industrialized landscape.

I was assured by the design firm head in St. Louis that there are investors waiting in the wings for solar investment opportunities. He said part of his job would be to connect us with those investors. Part of the rationale the utility corporations used to put forth the Shipe Road to Kings River project had to do with "constraint" (pricing) at the Springfield Flowgate which means that during peak demand periods, the cost of electricity from Springfield, Missouri is high. (Utilities determine where new power infrastructure needs to be built, by monitoring the costs of electricity passing through "flowgates" between partners in the grid. Cheap power allows them to make greater profits. When they have to pay more, they use it as a rationale to raise rates, but then do everything they can to make certain that they buy power at a cheap rate, thus improving their profit margin. Developing this land as a solar site, which would produce its greatest power at the time of peak demand would be a reasonable investment for either SWEPCO or AECC or both.

1. The utilities could develop this property as a solar park on their own, and as a last resort, they should be encouraged to do so. Personally, I see some potential advantages to them and to us, that we take a leap together in a more wholesome direction. We would help them to reclaim some good will from any effort in the right direction, which in our view involves distributed solar power rather than hugely destructive extra high voltage transmission lines and the permanent scar they leave on the landscape.

2. Some of my resources have suggested that the property be developed and held by a Property Owners Association in which people could buy and hold shares and solar panels within the property that would offset their own energy use. Ideally, those who cannot have solar panels on their roofs or in their back yards could have them here, with a small deduction (10%) going back into the POA for management and maintenance. Software available for iPhones would allow individual members to track the production of their own panels. Membership should be open to any customer of SWEPCO, or Carroll Electric through participation of AECC. This could be done in partnership with both SWEPCO and AECC, or without one or the other, but my preference would be that they own no more that 40% of the panels installed, leaving room for customers to invest. This would be a project falling under the rules for net metering which allow for customers to own panels off site. There are many examples of successful community solar projects and this would be the first of this scale in Arkansas.

3. A third scenario would be for SWEPCO to simply deed the property to Save the Ozarks as a form of settlement. In that case, I have been assured that we would be able to find outside investors to build a solar park as one appears to be needed in the area to reduce electric costs during the peak demand, which happens to correspond with summertime heat when the sun is at full force. We would be applying to various foundations and local industries for grants, and think it can be done without SWEPCO’s further participation. For instance, small manufacturing companies in Berryville might want to invest in solar and make use of net metering regulations to cut the costs of their own power.

Easiest for us would be a partnership with SWEPCO and AECC. The devil we know may be better than the devils we don’t know, and I hope they would see the value of making an investment in the community that would serve as a showcase for the future, their future and ours… Whereas outside investors might want to see the 28,000 panels laid out in an industrial fashion, not the solar park/garden that some of us have in mind.

Whether a making a gift to STO or joining in partnership with us, each scenario would allow SWEPCO and AECC to reclaim some of the good will that they squandered with their unfortunate proposal and through their protracted defense of it through hearings at the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

Along with any of these three scenarios we would file a grant request for $150,000 to SWEPCO/AEP’s foundation for the environment. If they chose the first scenario, building the solar park themselves, we would use the $150,000 from the AEP grant to build a solar park/native plants garden at the former Eureka Springs High School property that is being re-purposed as a community center.

Of course, SWEPCO is most likely to say no to all of the above. But if we never ask, the answer is always no.

Make, fix and create...

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