A TURBINE: At SWEPCO's Sundance facility, the first stage of the North Central Wind Project. Courtesy SWEPCO

For our November print issue, we asked local experts to gaze into the crystal ball to predict what life in the Little Rock metro area will be like in 2050.

Perhaps the biggest part of solving complicated problems is asking the right questions.

Advertisement

The problem of global climate disruption is one of the most complicated issues of our time. Identifying the cause isn’t — the climate is in peril because we humans are spewing ridiculous amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and causing the planet to warm. Primarily, it’s down to how we burn dirty fossil fuels to generate electricity, produce heat and power our transportation. Burning coal, natural gas and oil has propelled us forward as a species in many ways. It also caused higher temperatures, droughts, stronger and more frequent storms, floods and intense forest fire seasons that were unimaginable in even our recent past.

It’s not surprising if you feel overwhelmed. This problem is large enough to be paralyzing. Even worse, there are political and business forces spending billions of dollars to convince us that 1) climate disruption is a hoax, 2) it’s a liberal issue that conservatives shouldn’t believe in, and 3) science and scientists can’t be trusted. There are plenty of entities that gain power and profits by convincing us of these things. 

Advertisement

So how can we solve a global problem of this magnitude? One critical solution is to ensure that your particular corner of the world is doing the right things. You may not convince nearly 200 national governments to take large pro-climate steps, but you can convince your mayor or county judge. Our local impact can be immense and produce real, tangible benefits. 

Know what else is important? Showing that taking care of the environment makes economic sense. For far too long, anti-environmental forces have made the argument that climate solutions are too expensive and will drive up costs for everyone. That is simply not true anymore. Clean solar and wind energy are often less expensive than traditional coal and fracked natural gas. Thousands of Arkansans now work in good-paying clean energy jobs. Pairing our local environmental activism with the happy reality that clean energy is a positive economic driver really gets the attention of decision-makers and elected officials.

Advertisement

Recently, Central Arkansas took large steps toward both recognizing that climate disruption is real and actually doing something about it. Pulaski County government has taken steps to power nearly 90% of its municipal energy use with solar power. Central Arkansas Water this year announced the construction of a solar array to power its operations, which will save a projected $7 million in electricity costs over the next three decades. The city of North Little Rock will power a significant portion of its wastewater treatment facility with solar energy.

Another positive step worth noting is the movement of Entergy Arkansas away from coal and toward clean solar energy and storage. As part of a recent legal settlement with the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, Entergy Arkansas plans to retire the state’s two largest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants. The settlement also requires Entergy to seek approval for 800 megawatts of clean energy in the state — which has resulted in the utility constructing multiple large utility-scale solar arrays throughout Arkansas. The state’s largest coal-burner is now on the path to a coal-free future in The Natural State. 

Another large Arkansas coal-burning utility, Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) is completing its North Central wind project. This project will mean nearly 300 megawatts of clean wind energy coming into Arkansas from our neighboring states. Adding more clean energy to the grid means cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier citizens and — more and more — lower electricity bills.

When it comes to transportation, look out for the construction of significant infrastructure that will make electric vehicles a more attractive option. The Arkansas Department of Energy & Environment has announced plans to install more than 200 electric vehicle charging stations across the state. In the 2021 Arkansas state legislative session, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation to create an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Grant Program that will expand installation of fast charging stations. A great many of these will be located in Central Arkansas, which will undoubtedly spur growth in electric vehicle sales. 

Advertisement

Speaking of the Arkansas General Assembly, significant pro-solar legislation was passed in both the 2021 and 2019 sessions that improved and protected incentives for solar energy customers in our state. Arkansas has one of the nation’s best set of “net-metering” regulations, which essentially means that folks who install solar panels and generate more power than they consume have the ability to sell their excess power back to the utility at the full retail rate. This creates a strong economic incentive for Arkansans to install clean solar energy and save money while helping combat climate change.

All of these are welcome and important steps forward for Central Arkansas. But it’s not nearly enough.

Here at the Sierra Club, we follow the science. The science says we need to move entirely away from burning fossil fuels if we are to have a hope of blunting the effects of climate change. That means moving to 100% clean energy for electricity and transportation as quickly as possible. We’ve dithered and argued and stalled for far too long. 

While it’s great news to see electric utilities like Entergy Arkansas and SWEPCO embracing clean solar and wind energy, it’s disheartening to see both of these utilities announcing plans to construct more dirty fracked natural gas plants in the state. Each of these utilities has a parent company (Entergy and American Electric Power) that made a public pledge to be at net-zero carbon by 2050. Plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars locking us into a fossil fuel future for the next generation run contrary to these commitments, especially when carbon capture and sequestration is unproven. It’s a dangerous gamble that Arkansans should reject. Public pledges and greenwashing will not solve the climate crisis. We need action from Entergy Arkansas and SWEPCO that actually fulfills the pledges made by their corporate leaders. That means abandoning plans to build more fracked gas plants, accelerating the retirement of the coal-burning power plants like SWEPCO’s Flint Creek coal power plant, and building clean energy quickly and to scale.

Central Arkansas is not in a bubble when it comes to pollution. Dirty polluting power plants in other parts of our state negatively affect the health of our citizens and the quality of our air. Missed work days because of respiratory problems caused by dirty air come with economic consequences for Central Arkansas. Our region frequently flirts with ozone levels at or near the legal limit, a limit that respiratory health professionals like the American Lung Association believe is already too high to protect human health. Violating ozone level caps can mean the loss of federal highway funds or the inability to locate industry in a polluted county. Even those who don’t consider themselves to be environmentalists can recognize the economic benefits of clean air to Central Arkansas. 

As mentioned earlier, solving complicated issues requires us to ask the right questions.  We no longer need to waste time arguing about whether global climate disruption is real. Let’s move past that immediately. 

I believe solving the issue of climate disruption requires us to ask: 1) How can we maximize the use of clean energy in Central Arkansas? 2)  How can we do it in a way that improves our health, our environment and our economy? 3)  How can we do it quickly, to scale, and in a way that benefits the most people?

If these are the questions we ask and answer together, we can do our part here in Central Arkansas to build healthy, thriving communities powered by energy that creates jobs and sustains human life.

I’m all in. How about you?

Glen Hooks is the director of the Arkansas Sierra Club and a lifelong resident of Central Arkansas.