Arkansas utilities are adopting clean energy guidelines faster than much of the US, but state activists said more consistent reporting would help measure the real impact of those guidelines and hold companies accountable for their promises.
Utilities find it more cost-effective to invest in clean energy options than to build new natural gas plants. As Entergy states on its website, “Companies recognize that our customers are increasingly pursuing sustainability and climate goals and are looking for more renewable energy solutions”.
In January, the Sierra Club – a national environmental organization – released its report, “The Dirty Truth about Utility Climate Pledges,” which examined 50 parent companies that own half of all remaining coal and gas-fired power plants in the US The report analyzed the companies' plans phase out coal, stop building gas plants, and invest in clean energy over the next decade.
Nationwide, the average score was 20 out of 100 (or a grade of D) for utilities with a net-zero climate promise and 14 out of 100 for utilities without such a promise, “which shows that the utilities' corporate promises mean little of action”, it says in the report.
The three largest electric utilities in Arkansas: Southwestern Electric Power Co. (owned by American Electric Power Co. Inc) scored 50 points (grade B), while Entergy Arkansas and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Association scored 36 and 38 points, respectively (both letter grades of C).
Glen Hooks, president of the Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter, said Arkansas utilities “did a really good job,” but there was room for improvement.
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. consists of 17 power distribution cooperatives and has no single clean energy policy. However, it has three hydroelectric plants and long-term purchase agreements for solar and wind power.
SWEPCO's score corresponds to the tenth best of the nationally rated companies. Hooks said that higher score was due to the company's plans to build wind turbines and shut down several coal-fired power plants.
The company will add 810 megawatts of wind power for customers in Arkansas and Louisiana through the purchase of three wind turbines currently under development in Oklahoma. Completion is expected in 2021 and 2022, said Peter Main, a communications advisor for SWEPCO. It also plans to shut down the Pirkey plant by 2023 and cease coal operations at the Welsh power plant by 2028 – both in Texas and for customers in Arkansas, Main said.
According to Hooks, the Flint Creek Power Plant in Gentry is the main holding back SWEPCO in terms of the clean energy rankings in the state.
SWEPCO plans to continue operating the facility in accordance with environmental regulations, Main said. Half of the facility is owned by SWEPCO and half by Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.
The state has a total of five coal-fired power plants.
In addition to Flint Creek, SWEPCO plans to continue operating the John W. Turk Jr. power station in Fulton.
NRG Energy Services owns the 680 megawatt Plum Point energy station south of Osceola.
The state's two largest coal-fired power plants are White Bluff in Redfield and Independence Stream Electric Station in Newark – both owned by Entergy. However, Entergy will cease burning coal at these facilities through 2030 under a settlement agreement entered into March 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Coal is the leading fuel for power generation in Arkansas, accounting for nearly two-fifths of the state's net generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration's last update in March 2020.
Four of the ten largest power plants in Arkansas are natural gas-fired, and natural gas will fuel about a third of the state's net generation, according to the 2019 analysis. The state has a nuclear power plant with two reactors, which provides around a fifth of the net generation.
Almost all of the rest of the state's electricity generation comes from hydropower and biomass-fueled power plants.
Arkansas has a small but growing amount of solar power, which made up about 0.6% of the state's electricity generation in 2019. This corresponds to an almost eight-fold increase compared to 2016, according to the analysis.
Entergy is also adding more solar to the state. In January, the company announced a 180-megawatt facility near West Memphis in hopes of bringing it on stream next year. It will be the largest solar field in the state. Entergy also has solar projects underway in Lee County and Searcy and two already in Lake Village and Stuttgart.
Entergy is committed to halving its CO2 emissions rate by 2030 compared to 2000. By 2050, it committed itself to achieving zero net CO2 emissions. Renewable energy options in Arkansas include solar, geothermal, hydropower, and wind power, as well as energy storage technologies, said Kacee Kirschvink, communications manager at Entergy Arkansas.
“We have many opportunities to work towards a cleaner energy future and the innovations we can take advantage of is exciting,” said Kirschvink.
Hook said the company has yet to end its reliance on natural gas – which is less emissions than coal – if it really plans to avoid carbon emissions.
“They do some great things that we applaud them for,” he said. “We have to be really aggressive about getting out of fossil fuels if we really want to make a difference.”
CenterPoint Energy Inc., which supplies natural gas to approximately 400,000 customers in most parts of Arkansas, plans to reduce emissions by 70% by 2035. It received a rating of 50 (or B) and was the sixth highest rated parent company on the Sierra Club report.
“We have already done a lot,” said CenterPoint spokesman Ross Corson. “In terms of emissions that are directly attributable to our operations in Arkansas, we reduced them by 17.6% from 2013 to 2019 … mainly by upgrading our infrastructure.”
Over the past two decades, the company has replaced 450 miles of cast iron pipeline that is prone to corrosion, he said. It has also replaced uncoated steel pipes. Both are being replaced by pipes made of polyethylene plastic and epoxy-coated steel.
“That way, the natural gas stays in the pipe instead of going into the air,” he said.
Corson said the company plans to retire and replace another 3,000 mile old pipeline over the next seven years.
CenterPoint also pledged to reduce emissions by up to 30% by 2040, based on 2005 levels, attributable to gas consumption in heating, appliances and equipment in residential and commercial areas to help customers through its improvement program to motivate conservation.
“We are helping both our residential and business customers reduce their energy use and that saves them money on their utility bills, but it also helps them reduce the carbon footprint of their own energy use,” he said.
Since 2013, CenterPoint customers in the Arkansas program have reduced emissions by around 482,000 tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of 139,000 households annually – saving around $ 63 million, Corson said.
Proponents have developed model laws to establish broader reporting policies for utilities. This would hold accountability for clean energy utilities ‘pledges and allow companies to showcase their progress, according to members of the First Citizens' Congress.
“In other words, we have utilities that say, ‘We will be out of emissions by this and that date.' What does this mean? There are several ways to measure this. When people don't provide standardized information, it's hard to know if we're making progress, “said Gary Kahanak, co-chair of the Environment Committee. “We can only manage what we measure. This calculation would establish a standardized method.”
The First Citizens' Congress also set up a task force to examine clean energy jobs. The aim would be to examine and propose a plan for how the state can use the changing electricity sector for job creation and economic development.
According to an April 2020 report by Environmental Entrepreneurs, clean energy jobs (3.36 million) outpaced total fossil fuel employees (1.19 million) by more than 3 to 1 in 2019. These numbers include jobs in the Renewable energies, grid and storage, energy efficiency as well as clean fuels and vehicles.
“What it shows is that we can get out of this old way of thinking,” You can either have a healthy economy or a healthy environment. This is real proof that you can have both, “said Corson.