Rural cities look to the sun for economic development

July 08, 2018

New solar project in Arkansas exemplifies trend in job creation and environmental sustainability.

You wouldn’t expect tiny Clarksville, Arkansas, to house the state’s largest municipally owned solar power plant but this is the future of how the solar power spreads throughout the nation, far from the energy-gobbling big cities. 

“Everyone here was so excited about this project,” said Ashley Baars, a native of Clarksville, site steward of the Scenic Hill solar power plant. “We thought that these projects belonged in big cities, not in rural towns like this one.”

The five megawatt plant was built as a collaboration with Scenic Hill Solar and Clarksville Light and Water Company, which received a $6.7 million tax credit equity investment by U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC). The project created 100 construction jobs and it began operation in late 2017. 

The plant will pump out 11 million kW hours per year of electricity, enough to power 25 percent of homes in the low-income community of nearly 10,000 people located 100 miles west of Little Rock. 

“This community will benefit from having clean, renewable energy and will see a reduction in their utility costs,” explained William A. Halter, CEO of Scenic Hill Solar. “This is also bringing a lot of visibility and attractiveness to the city of Clarksville – it is an opportunity to retain and attract new companies that are looking to meet their sustainability goals.” 

Rural America is starting to discover the economic development potential of renewable energy, said Dan Siegel, director of business development, renewable energy tax credits. 

“Rural solar isn’t just about making an environmental impact. Rather it is an effective tool to reduce long-term energy costs as well as catalyze additional economic development,” he said. 

In 2017, USBCDC invested in around 50 projects throughout the nation. Environmental sustainability is part of U.S. Bank's corporate social responsibility platform, Community Possible. 

For Baars, the solar plant turned out to be a life-changing experience. When construction began, she was working at a local distribution center hoping to find a better opportunity.

“I remember thinking that this is not the job I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said. 

A friend who was working in the construction of the facility asked her to apply for one of the constructions jobs. 

Baars became one of only two women on the construction crew. She worked in the pre-fabrication unit, then as a forklift operator, and her last position was in quality check. 

She had been a little worried about how the male-dominated crew would interact with her. 

“The construction guys treated us like their equals,” she added. 

Once the project was completed, there was a need for just one full-time employee to become the site steward, in charge of operations and maintenance. Baars was offered the position. 

“It’s pretty cool to be a woman in this field, kind of empowering,” Baars said. “I am proud of working here. We are not just helping people lower their utility bills, but also bringing clean energy to our town.”

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