With the closure of coal plants in the wake of government regulations, demand for electricity and the alternative means of developing it are expected to grow in the coming years.

With the closure of coal plants in the wake of government regulations, demand for electricity and the alternative means of developing it are expected to grow in the coming years.

Hydropower, while not considered an "alternative" energy source because some federal regulations, is seen by some as a renewable method of producing electricity that has room for growth in the Natural State.

"The rivers are not producing as much as they can," Arkansas Waterways Commission Executive Director Gene Higginbotham said. "Arkansas is a water -rich state, and we have a good state water plan that is saving aquifers and using more surface water."

Use of electricity tends to go up every year, Higginbotham added, and producing more electricity through hydropower is "a good option." There are currently seven hydropower plants in Arkansas. The U.S. Corps of Engineers, which operates two hydropower plants on the Arkansas River, studied the addition of another hydropower plant Tucker’s Maynard Dam near Pine Bluff in 2013, Higginbotham added.

The Maynard Dam, named for Col. Charles D. Maynard, was chosen based on the results of the USACE National Hydropower Resource Assessment in 2013 that identified an average annual generation of 249,000 megawatts. It was one of the largest potential generation values that USACE reported, "and thus provided a good indication that this particular site may be feasible for hydroelectricity," the study states. The new power plant would cost about $202 million and cost about $2 million to operate annually, according to the study.

"Hydropower is good and low-cost, especially if the project already exists," Higginbotham said. "We’re always talking about bringing navigation up the Red River to Texarkana, and we could add hydro to that."

Essentially, there just has to be a customer willing to take on the power, he added. And there is a lengthy permitting phase through the Corps and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It depends on where the power would be used, but that licensing may also go through the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

The Corps is the largest owner and operator of hydropower in the U.S., generating about 24 percent of the nation’s hydropower, according to the Corps’ website.

Audrey House of Altus, who was reappointed to the Arkansas Alternative Energy Commission by Gov. Asa Hutchinson this week, sees hydropower as both a clean energy and a potential job creator. House also pointed to diversification of the state’s renewables as necessary to meet the demands placed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Challenges in improvements to the system, however, include bureaucracy, House said.

Three of Arkansas’ hydropower plants were built by the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation. The first, the Clyde T. Ellis Hydroelectric Generating Station, began operation in 1988 with an installed capacity of 32.4 megawatts and cost about $75 million to build.

Five years later, the Carl S. Whillock Hydroelectric Generating Station at the Arthur V. Ormond Lock and Dam near Morrilton was completed at a cost of $80 million. Its installed generating capacity is 32.4 megawatts.

The cooperatives began work on their third hydropower plant in 1994 located at the Wilbur D. Mills Dam near Dumas. It was completed in 1999 at a cost of about $189 million. It has an installed generating capacity of 102.6 megawatts.

"Hydropower is the lowest cost power resource, especially during periods of peak electricity demand," the AECC website states.

However, river level conditions have to be between not-too-high and not-too-low. So the Oklahoma and Arkansas floods of 2015 were of no use for producing more electricity with hydropower.

Local solar farm

Greg Davis, spokesman for Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative in Ozark, said Thursday the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Cooperation is planning to build a 1 megawatt solar farm in the Arkansas River valley area.

"We’re still working out the details but we’re planning to do it in the near future," Davis said. "Exactly where it goes, we don’t know yet, but we have options. This will help offset peak demand."

The corporation has steadily diversified it’s energy portfolio in the past two years, adding wind energy into the mix.

"Collectively, AECC will have more than 309 megawatts of wind energy once the new wind farm is commercially launched," Duane Highley, president and chief executive officer of AECC, said in a May.

DIY solar

Not all electric companies are supportive of do-it-yourself power generators. If an electric company customers are producing their own electricity, the company is essentially losing customer base while still having to maintain the grid. Davis said there are fewer than 20 residential customers currently producing their own electricity in the Arkansas Valley network.

Davis said he encourages customers to look into passive solar water heaters, which can cut water heating costs in half. He said they are common in Israel.

Higginbotham said he wondered why more poultry farmers don’t use solar panels to cool their production houses. He has also seen methane from animal waste used to produce electricity on site at some farms.

According to the Arkansas Public Service Commission’s net metering rules, which were amended in 2013, Arkansas residents are able to produce their own electricity by various means and feed it back into the grid for energy credits. After the year is up, those credits are used to offset the electricity consumed. After the 12-month billing cycle, the credits expire.

If the kilowatt hours generated by the customer exceed those from the utility, the company will credit the net-metering customer "with any accumulated net excess generation in the next applicable billing period." Basically, no money changes hands, but the kilowatt hours are tracked and exchanged like currency.