Region & State

South Arkansas power company tells lawmakers goal is to boost reliance on renewable energy

 The John W. Turk Jr. coal-fueled power plant in Hempstead County, Ark. | SWEPCO photo

A major supplier of electricity to south Arkansans told state lawmakers the company plans to boost its use of renewable energy to even out its resource portfolio

By JOEL PHELPS | For Arkansas Advocate

HOPE, Arkansas — The Legislative Joint Committee on Energy heard presentations Thursday morning from experts on both solar and coal-powered energy. The panel aimed most of its comments at officials from the coal-fueled John W. Turk Power Plant before touring the facility that afternoon.

The committee also recommended the Legislature create a task force to study the future of jobs in the energy sector as power companies transition to renewable resources.

“I’m an advocate of coal,” Rep. Danny Watson, a Hope Republican, said. Watson said he opposes relying too heavily on renewable energy: “I don’t believe in putting all our eggs in one basket.”

SWEPCO presentation

The 650-megawatt-capacity Turk Plant, located in Hempstead County, uses primarily low-sulfur coal hauled in by rail from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The facility was the last large coal plant to break ground in the United States and the second-to-last to come online in 2012 at a cost of $1.8 billion, officials said.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) owns 73% of the Turk Plant, which it claims is among the cleanest-burning and most efficient coal-fired plants in the nation. Arkansas Electric Cooperatives and two other smaller power companies own the remaining percentages.

SWEPCO announced in 2020 its intention to retire two of its coal plants, both in Texas by 2028. The company said it would upgrade its other Arkansas coal plant, Flint Creek in Gentry, to produce electricity more efficiently and cleanly.

Entergy Arkansas, which is majority owner of two of the five coal plants in Arkansas, has said it intends to close those plants, in Redfield and Newark, by the end of 2030.

SWEPCO currently uses a mix of coal, natural gas and wind to supply power to more than half a million customers in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana, officials told the committee.

SWEPCO’s primary fuel source now is natural gas, which makes up 47% of its resource mix, followed by 36% coal and 17% wind, President and COO Brett Mattison said. The energy company’s long-range goal is to diversify its resources to use equal parts coal/lignite, natural gas and wind/solar. Mattison said SWEPCO is in the early stages of a solar project and will be adding more wind-powered plants.

Founded in 1912, SWEPCO is no stranger to shifts in energy resources. Originally reliant on natural gas, the company turned to coal as a result of the country’s energy crisis in the mid-1970s, when natural gas reserves were dwindling.

SWEPCO still maintained its gas-fueled power plants, most of which are still in operation. During the 1980s SWEPCO also relied on lignite, an immature form of coal with a higher moisture content that makes long-distance transport a costly venture. The lignite mines lasted a little more than three decades before the resource was depleted.

Headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, SWEPCO’s customer base spans from western Arkansas to the northern Texas panhandle and in north-central Louisiana.

As some of its plants are retired, SWEPCO is now setting its sights on renewables.

Green jobs task force given approval

The committee approved an Advanced Energy Jobs Task Force study.

As utility companies increasingly make the transition to alternative and advanced energy systems, lawmakers are considering the creation of a 14-member task force to prepare Arkansas to take advantage of the transition to green energy.

The panel would also seek out training gaps in various green energy resources such as solar, nuclear, wind, hydropower and others.

The committee adopted the proposal with no discussion, sending it to the Legislative Council for final approval.

If the proposal is formally adopted, the task force would have until the end of 2024 to report its findings and recommend possible legislation for consideration in 2025.

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