NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — Just a few months ago, the lights went out for many in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.
Snow and record-cold temperatures forced some energy companies to plan blackouts across our area.
“We did have controlled outages for a limited period of time,” SWEPCO Corporate Communications Manager Peter Main said. “In the entire 80-year history of the Southwest Power Pool, this was the first time we’ve done it.”
But not everyone faced that issue. Ashley Harris, VP of Marketing and Communications for Ozarks Electric Cooperative (OEC), points toward one particular thing that might’ve saved people from losing power.
“We have a solar facility, and we utilized some of that battery storage from that solar facility to accommodate some of the stress on the grid,” Harris said.
OEC has made investments in clean energy and plans to continue into the future.
“We really see the future for the electric grid in renewables and energy alternatives,” she said.
The future does pose a big challenge to power companies, especially with how fast Northwest Arkansas is growing, but that’s nothing new.
“We have 5,000 residential lots in our queue and our staking department has added additional hours,” Harris said. “We are working 10-hour days in the staking department to accommodate this residential growth.”
And it’s not slowing down. The population of NWA has increased more than five-fold in the last six decades, now reaching over half a million.
We’re projected to pass the million mark by 2045, according to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.
Like Ozarks Electric Cooperative, SWEPCO also sees this population boom as a reason to emphasize renewables. Every three years, the company revises a 20-year plan for the future.
“We will look carefully at what our projected load on our electric system is going to be, what kind of resources we project will be available to meet that load,” Main said.
To accommodate, SWEPCO is going green, partly because it saves green.
“We just put into commercial service the first of three large wind energy projects,” Main said.
At the same time, SWEPCO is retiring several coal plants in Louisiana.
Main says those moves will save customers money, and that assertion is backed up by several studies.
A study by the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, and the gap is getting bigger.
The study found that replacing coal with solar and wind generators would cut power system costs by billions per year, while hugely reducing CO2 emissions. Also, the investment stimulus to the economy would approach the trillions.
The rate at which renewables are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels is increasing, thanks to improving technologies. Over the last decade, the two main methods of harvesting solar power have gotten 82% and 47% cheaper, and onshore wind energy costs have dropped by 39%.
The World Resources Institute found that renewables generate more energy than is used in their production.
Public opinion seems to agree with the findings. Another study by the Pew Research Center shows more than three-quarters of Americans want the U.S. to develop more renewable energy sources than to produce more fossil fuels.
So as Northwest Arkansas looks back on the lessons learned from that dark week in February, and forward to the future of one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, it’s clear: power companies think the best way to keep our electric grid reliable is through renewables.