IN MARCH 2017, with rumors swirling that the White House would soon pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan, along with 35 other mayors across the nation, signed a letter to President Donald Trump, stating that they would take every action available to abide by the Paris Agreement. At the time, Jordan was the only Arkansas mayor on board with the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda. In June 2017, he was joined by former Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. The pledge now carries signatures from 414 mayors across the country.
Less than a year later, Jordan was the first Arkansas mayor to sign the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100 Percent Clean Energy endorsement (now 206 strong, but still with only one representative from The Natural State and scant few from the Southeastern region), along with an open letter in support of the Paris accord to the global community and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Pledging environmental leadership on the global scale meant coming up with a cost-effective strategy of paradigm-busting magnitude. To do this, Fayetteville enlisted stakeholders and experts to help city officials develop a strategy using the Sustainable Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities (STAR) system, which defines community-scale sustainability, as a foundation.
The end result is the Fayetteville Energy Action Plan, featuring lofty goals of 100 percent clean, sustainable energy for municipality usage (all city of Fayetteville power needs) by 2030 and 100 percent citywide clean, sustainable energy usage (power used by everyone living within the city limits) by 2050. Little more than a handful of U.S. cities have achieved 100 percent clean municipal power. Becoming the only Arkansas town with a plan in place took brains; it took heart. And it took a lot of courage.
“It’s an ambitious plan,” says Peter Nierengarten, Fayetteville sustainability and resilience director, “but we like to lead the state and the region.”
On Nov. 20, Fayetteville City Council members took the first step toward meeting those goals as they approved a 20-year agreement with the Ozarks Electric Cooperative and Today’s Power Inc.—a solar company created by Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. in 2014—to install solar-power systems at each of the city’s two wastewater-treatment plants. Along with other sustainable energy production (solar and wind) already in play by OEC, the solar-power systems will bring Fayetteville’s clean-energy municipal power usage up from 16 percent to 72 percent.
Though the impetus is to mitigate climate change, the plan will also have a positive financial impact on Fayetteville—the city anticipates a savings of $6 million in energy costs over the 20-year agreement and a complete return of investment in less than four years. There’s also the benefit of stored power. Thanks to advancements in battery design (an industry “game changer,” Nierengarten says), excess electricity will be stored and can be accessed when needed. In other words, the treatment plants will be solar-powered, come rain or shine.
The challenge ahead for bringing 100 percent clean energy to Fayetteville is convincing the city’s power providers—OEC and Southwestern Electric Power Company—that updating aged infrastructure and a wholesale switch to renewable clean energy will be cost-effective. City officials are optimistic. Nierengarten says OEC is already on board, and SWEPCO has shown interest as well.
Construction of the solar-power systems is set to begin in spring 2019 with a completion date of September 2019. After 20 years, the city of Fayetteville will have the option of purchasing the system at a depreciated price or negotiating another agreement.
The path to becoming Arkansas’ greenest town isn’t made of yellow bricks. It’s paved with solar panels.