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As the CEO and General Manager for Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corporation, Mark Cayce played a pivotal leadership role to engineer a collaborative effort among OECC, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Southern Arkansas University Tech, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Silicon Ranch in pursuit of an innovative renewable energy project for rural south Arkansas. OECC is a locally-owned electric distribution cooperative that provides electricity services to approximately 9,500 homes, farms, and businesses across five counties in the region.

 

What prompted you to consider the addition of solar energy to your products/services?

Initial interest came from one of our largest industrial customers. We had been working with Aerojet Rocketdyne for a number of years trying to find a renewable energy project. Various options had been investigated but had been decidedly cost prohibitive.

Aerojet had existing solar in Sacramento, but it hadn’t been tried in Arkansas. We scratched our heads initially. Erik (Erik Didriksen; Safety, Health, and Environment Strategist for Aerojet Rocketdyne) brought in Silicon Ranch to discuss solar, and it became more apparent that it would be a viable project.

Also, this project was a means for economic development in rural Arkansas. We live in an area that has been hard-hit economically in the last 10-15 years, so Ouachita (OECC) bringing a project like this to Camden was significant. Shortly after this project was signed on, Aerojet announced they were bringing part of their operations to Camden, which wouldn’t have happened without this project.

Members need jobs and affordable electricity, and this project so far has provided both, including 125+ new jobs. We want Aerojet to stay around; they employ 600 people and we hope that can continue to grow.

Why did you choose to work with Silicon Ranch?

They had existing projects up and operating, and they had done utility-scale solar in states where it had never been done before. A first time project can be hard, and there is no paved path to follow.  Everyone with Silicon Ranch was knowledgeable and professional throughout the process.

What surprised you or felt especially helpful about working with the Silicon Ranch team to reach your solar objectives?

Our team traveled to Chattanooga to look at an existing project that had been done by Silicon Ranch with an industrial client, which proved they could do it. Seeing work that had been done, and finding out that the people working on it were experts in their field, gave us confidence that this project could be done and it would benefit our members.

The project needed to be large enough for the solar [installation] to be economically viable, so the project team along with Silicon Ranch developed the idea of having it behind Aerojet’s meter.  Our transformer capacity at the sub-station limited the size of the solar field to 12 MW.  This was greater than Aerojet’s load requirement. Bringing in Arkansas Electric Cooperative to purchase the excess portion of the solar capacity made the project viable.

Initially the project wasn’t met with open arms, but we persevered and worked through regulatory and legal issues, and 18 months later, everyone is proud of the project and relationships that have developed.

Now member co-ops of Arkansas Electric Cooperative can potentially own solar generation facilities of their own up to 1 MW. This is a big shift in attitudes in Arkansas.

What did you learn, that you didn’t know prior, about solar solutions during this process?

I’ve been in this business long enough for a full head of gray hair. I’ve worked in Texas for about 24 years and Arkansas for 15 years, and solar hasn’t been part of that equation so far. What I realized as we looked into solar was that the information I had heard in the past was based on older technology and therefore out of date.

Reviewing the new products, plus lower costs, allowed me to see it as a very viable part of our generation. It can be done economically now. It pays for itself, and even the initial investment is cheaper than many other options.  

Solar fits the load profile for Ouachita Electric and Arkansas (summer peaking). On peak days, solar runs at peak times where other energy is more expensive. Also the generation is closer to the source of the load and thus we avoid transmission complications. It truly is more cost effective. 

How has your organization benefited from the solar solution(s) provided by Silicon Ranch?

A lot of utility companies are wondering why an electric co-op would do this.  Well, this project brought jobs to our community. It also is providing stable, low-cost power for the long term. It has predictable costs, which is important. Electric rate increases in the future are inevitable, even as soon as this fall. This is another way to offset those increases. We are trying to work toward better energy efficiency for all of our members – that is our goal.  

It took the right industry and right partners coming together to make this happen – for solar energy to come to south Arkansas. We are a small co-op. But this demonstrates that small organizations can have big impacts in our industry.  

What advice or encouragement would you give to an organization that’s considering integrating solar?

Look at the facts. Investigate what is out there. Solar is feasible on a utility scale and even smaller as well, and it’s not as difficult or as daunting as it may seem. Many naysayers in the utility industry are referring to stories and costs from the 90s, and those stories and experiences no longer apply. It’s different today.  

Sometimes people in rural areas think they don’t have the same services that are available in more urban areas. Bringing solar to a rural community shows people that you have innovative things to offer.

If you would have asked me ten years ago about utility grade solar in South Arkansas, I would have told you it would never happen in my lifetime. It is difficult to get new ideas into a closed mind. So keep an open mind – there is an exciting future coming.

What would you like readers to know about Ouachita Electric?

Our involvement with solar fits in perfectly with our desire to revitalize our community. We have a lot to offer in a rural area, and this project is helping people recognize that. Our hope is for Ouachita Electric Cooperative to be a model for other small communities to demonstrate that they too can make a difference.