NAEC dedicates new solar array
SALEM — Officials flipped an oversized, ceremonial light switch Tuesday to dedicate North Arkansas Electric Cooperative’s new 1 megawatt solar array. The setup will harness enough solar energy to power between 125 and 150 homes annually, NAEC officials said.
The array contains 4,009 solar panels arranged in 211 rows on eight acres of land along U.S. Highway 62/412 near Salem. The array’s panels track the path of the sun across the sky, initially facing east and slowly angling their way westward throughout the day.
NAEC owns the array, making the solar setup the first electrical generation source directly owned by the co-op in its almost 80-year history.
“We are a distributor of power. We don’t own — typically — the generation (of power), but now we do,” NAEC CEO Mel Coleman said during his remarks at Tuesday’s dedication ceremony.
Little Rock-based Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc., which is co-owned by the state’s 17 electrical co-ops, owns the power plants usually used to generate the co-ops’ electricity. Some co-ops, including NAEC, also contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to purchase some of the electricity generated by the operation of the Corps’ dams.
Construction on the solar array began in fall 2018 and cost approximately $2.2 million to build. Total Power, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, was responsible for building the setup.
The solar array started providing electricity to NAEC’s power grid about a month ago, Total Power, Inc. President Michael Henderson said. The panels communicate wirelessly with NAEC, and Total Power is still ironing out a few communication bugs between the setup and the electrical co-op, he said.
In addition to being able to track the sun, the array is also equipped with weather sensors that can move the panels as needed. The sensors can move the panels to dump accumulating snow, for example, or rotate them so they are not facing a strong wind in storm-like conditions.
“Cooperatives have always been proud about adopting the newest, cleanest, best-use energy resources. We used to really be dependent on natural gas, and then you had the energy crisis. We then switched to coal, now coal is starting to come under a little bit of heat and the cooperatives have adopted wind and solar,” Henderson said during his remarks Tuesday. “The cooperative sector has always been ahead of the game, as far as utilities go. It’s the right thing for our members, and they’re willing to do it.”
Quail Forever, an organization wildlife habit conservation, will work with NAEC to make the solar array site attractive to bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits and grassland songbirds. Wildflowers will be sown on the site in the fall, helping to attract pollinators like butterflies and bees.
“We actually thought about sheep — don’t laugh — because that is the cheapest lawnmower you can get for a solar plant,” Coleman said. “But we opted for a quail habitat.”
NEAC also plans to host educational tours of the site with area schools.
“We want to promote STEM-based education and careers to our students,” Coleman said. “We have already hosted three chemistry classes at the solar array and look forward to many more.”
NAEC serves more than 36,650 accounts throughout seven counties in north central Arkansas. The cooperative’s headquarters is located in Salem, with full-service offices located in Ash Flat and Mountain Home.
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