Updated 12:05 p.m., Sept. 10, 2021
One of Arkansas’s biggest utilities is delivering wind power to thousands of homes in the state, and the company says more is on the way.
On Friday, Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) announced the second phase of its North Central Wind Project in northern Oklahoma had started commercial operations. The first phase of the project began distributing electricity in April; the third and final phase is currently under construction and should be operational in early 2022. Though the turbines are located out of state, much of the power they generate is intended specifically for SWEPCO’s customers in Arkansas, along with others in Louisiana and Oklahoma.
When the project is completed next year, winds sweeping across the Great Plains will generate 1,485 megawatts for homes and businesses in all three states. Arkansas will receive 268 mw, enough to power about 73,000 Arkansas homes, more than half of SWEPCO’s residential customers in the state.
The North Central project represents a major step toward cleaner power in a state that has lagged behind most of the country in adopting renewable energy. Arkansas’s utilities remain tied to fossil fuels, according to an analysis in The New York Times. As of 2020, 38% of the state’s power came from coal and 33% came from natural gas, according to the analysis. Another 22% was generated by nuclear power.
Renewable sources made up only a small fraction of the remaining supply, mostly in the form of hydroelectric.
Federal efforts to force power companies to produce cleaner energy have repeatedly stalled over the last decade. Under the Barack Obama administration, the federal Environmental Protection Agency required each state to come up with a plan to reduce utility sector carbon emissions. Arkansas and other red states challenged the regulation in court, however, and President Donald Trump rolled back the policy after taking office.
Arkansas, like many other states, is beginning to invest in cleaner energy nonetheless. Solar power is growing across the state, from rooftop panels on homes and businesses to large-scale generation facilities operated by utility companies.
Wind-generated energy has been trickling into the state for years, but only slowly. In 2006, Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) began supplying about 50 mw to its roughly 68,000 customers in western Arkansas. The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, a 17-member organization with 500,000 Arkansas customers, began distributing wind power in 2012 through a power purchase agreement with a producer in Kansas. Today, the Electric Cooperatives have five power purchase agreements with wind facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma with a capacity of 474 mw.
SWEPCO’s North Central Wind Project may signal a new period of investment. In June, SWEPCO issued two requests for proposals to add up to 3,000 mw of wind energy and up to 300 mw of solar energy to the company’s resource mix. The projects would begin commercial operation by December 2025, according to the RFPs.
Glen Hooks, director of the Arkansas Sierra Club, called SWEPCO’s investment in the North Central project, estimated at $2 billion, a “big deal” for Arkansas, considering the state’s late start on clean energy.
“When a large, coal-dependent utility invests heavily in a large, multistate wind energy project, that's big news,” Hooks said.
SWEPCO, which serves 123,000 customers in 13 counties in western Arkansas, is the third-largest utility in Arkansas. SWEPCO’s parent company, American Electric Power, is one of the biggest power companies in the country and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the industry. Earlier this year, AEP announced a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and plans to add more than 10,000 mw of renewable resources by 2030. The Ohio-based company provides power to more than 5 million customers in 11 states.
Driven by the market
The cost of producing wind energy has fallen by 70% in the past decade, according to the American Clean Power Association, which calls itself the nation’s leading federation of renewable energy companies. Advances in wind technology have improved the ability of the turbines to reach stronger, steadier winds, which improves electricity generation and reduces costs, according to Greg Alvarez, the organization’s deputy director for communication. Technology has also improved on the operations end, which has lowered operations and maintenance costs, he said.
“In many cases, it’s now more affordable to build new wind farms than it is to keep operating existing coal plants,” Alvarez said via email.
Even traditionally fossil-fuel dependent power utilities have gotten on board. There are now 122,478 mw of operating wind capacity in the United States, enough to power 38 million homes.
Renewable resources like wind may also save customers money. Although wind farms incur the costs of construction, infrastructure and management, they don’t have the added expense of fuel to turn the turbines. Peter Main, a spokesman for SWEPCO, said the North Central project is projected to save SWEPCO’s Arkansas customers $713 million over the 30-year expected life of the new facilities, a sum that Main said represents what it would have cost to build a new natural gas-fired plant instead of the wind farm.
Main said cleaner energy can also help with economic development, because some companies want to locate where renewable power sources are available.
“We know that our customers want more clean energy,” he said.
One of those customers is the city of Fayetteville, which has set goals for clean energy usage as part of a broad sustainability plan. In 2018, the city council pledged to achieve a number of sustainability goals, including having city residents use 50% clean energy by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2050.
While the city’s municipal operations have achieved 72% clean energy, thanks to some solar installations, the community’s residents have only achieved 27% clean energy.
“Fortunately for us, [SWEPCO] is making strides to clean up the supply of electricity coming to Fayetteville,” said Fayetteville Environmental Director Peter Nierengarten.
SWEPCO is not the only Arkansas power company turning to renewables.
The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas’s purchase agreements with wind facilities in Oklahoma and Kansas recently accounted for as much as 13% of the utility’s power. The Electric Cooperatives have also invested in several solar facilities in Arkansas and has a 100 mw solar facility under construction in Crossett. When completed, solar will account for 1.5% of the Electric Cooperatives’ power.
“We believe in fuel diversity and we think that solar and definitely wind can be a part of that fuel diversity,” Andrew Lachowsky, the Electric Cooperatives vice president of planning and market operations, said.
Entergy Arkansas does not have any wind energy in its portfolio, but it has invested heavily in solar power, with 861 mw of solar either in operation or on the way. Kurt Castleberry, Entergy Arkansas’s director of resource planning and market operations, said the company would like to add wind to the mix while continuing to increase its solar resources.
“I’m bullish on the future of renewable resources,” Castleberry said.
From Wind Catcher to North Central
The North Central project follows a failed attempt by AEP, SWEPCO’s parent company, to create the nation’s largest single-site wind farm.
Wind Catcher Energy Connection was a proposed $4.5 billion project that would have included the acquisition of a 2,000 mw wind farm in the Oklahoma panhandle. Power from the project, which was slated to include 800 wind turbines, would have been distributed to customers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. The project also required the construction of an approximately 350-mile dedicated power line that would have carried the power to the electrical grid in the Tulsa area. Wind Catcher required the approval of regulators in the four states in addition to federal authorities.
But it faced organized opposition. Two groups with anonymous donor lists campaigned against the project in Arkansas, running TV ads that claimed the project would not benefit Arkansans. Nonetheless, the Arkansas Public Service Commission approved the proposal in May 2018. Louisiana regulators followed suit, but the Texas Public Service Commission rejected the proposal that July.
Hooks said Texas regulators most likely rejected the proposal because it would have been financed by ratepayers. New energy infrastructure projects in Texas are typically funded by private investment.
The decision by Texas authorities dealt a blow not only to SWEPCO but to those who hope to see Arkansas go greener. Nierengarten, the Fayetteville official, said Wind Catcher would have helped the city meet its sustainability goal. SWEPCO serves about two-thirds of the city’s nearly 90,000 residents.
“We were banking on Wind Catcher, for sure,” Nierengarten said. He said city leaders were angry and frustrated at Texas’ “selfish” decision.
SWEPCO officials advised Fayetteville that the company would return with a smaller multistate project that would not require Texas’ approval.
“To their credit, they’ve delivered on it,” Nierengarten said of the North Central project. “It turned out to be pretty good and we’re pleased with the progress.”
The North Central project allows participating states to increase their allocations of power if any other state declines to participate.
Texas regulators rejected the North Central proposal in July of last year, so Arkansas and Louisiana were able to increase their allocations.
When completed in 2022, the project will consist of three wind facilities with more than 500 turbines in seven counties in north central Oklahoma. The first facility, called Sundance Wind Energy Center, came online in April, producing 199 mw, including about 89 mw intended to go to Arkansas customers. A second facility, Maverick, began commercial operations on Sept. 10 and will produce 287 mw. Traverse, the final installment, will produce 999 mw and is scheduled to begin operation early next year.
In addition to the 268 mw in wind energy SWEPCO will provide its Arkansas customers, the utility will also provide 78 mw to its wholesale customers, separate utilities that purchase power generated by the facilities. In Arkansas, SWEPCO’s wholesale customers are the cities of Bentonville, Hope and Prescott, which have municipally-owned power utilities.
A long road ahead
Coal accounts for more than a third of the power generated in Arkansas. While SWEPCO has announced the retirement of some coal-burning plants, it plans to keep operating others for the foreseeable future.
Environmental advocates such as Hooks, who has pushed for coal plant retirements for more than 10 years as part of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, would like to see SWEPCO retire its Flint Creek Power Plant in Gentry. The coal plant is half-owned by SWEPCO and half-owned by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, Main said.
The plant is “nearing the end of its useful life,” Hooks said, but SWEPCO has chosen to renovate it rather than retire it.
“You’ve got this situation where SWEPCO is doing a great thing by importing a bunch of clean energy to Arkansas, but they are also making a public commitment to keep that old dirty coal plant running and spend several million dollars to do some retrofits to prop it up and keep it chugging along and polluting Northwest Arkansas,” he said.
SWEPCO announced in November that it would retire its Hallsville, Texas, and Pittsburg, Texas, coal plants in 2023 and 2028, but that it would continue operation at Flint Creek with the installation of new systems in 2023 to meet environmental requirements for waste generated by the burning of coal. All three of the plants serve SWEPCO customers in Arkansas.
“Flint Creek has been important to the growth of Northwest Arkansas for decades,” Main said.
According to the Sierra Club, there are 185 active coal plants in the U.S. today; another 345 have either been retired or are proposed to retire.
Nonetheless, utilities are continuing to embrace renewables and decrease reliance on coal, even if the pace of change is slower than environmental advocates would like.
“I can’t overstate how important this is that the largest coal burners in our state are now embracing wind and solar,” Hooks said.
Hooks said he’s been advocating for cleaner energy in Arkansas since 2003. At that time, local leaders and utilities “paid little attention to clean energy and climate disruption,” he said.
“For this native Arkansan, to see clean energy companies competing to power our schools, businesses, cities and counties is a dream come true,” Hooks said.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.