LITTLE ROCK — As Arkansas legislators moved to open up Arkansas' solar energy landscape with a new law, a national trade group noted recently that the state had its biggest year of solar installation ever in 2018.

Arkansas added the 18th most solar projects among the 50 states last year, adding 118 megawatts of solar generation, according to GMT Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association's latest market report. Nationwide, the number of solar projects was up a modest 2 percent, but the market has been surging in early 2019, the Arkansas Business reported.

Arkansas, which had a meager 22 megawatts of solar power at the end of 2017, saw its totals rise 552 percent, ranking it 32nd among solar states, up 13 spots from a year before. Arkansas' 369 solar jobs are up 30 percent from 2017, the report found.

Nationally, the solar power industry had double-digit gigawatt growth for the third consecutive year, despite tariffs on solar panels that slowed some projects.

"Solar is an increasingly important economic driver for the state's economy," said Katie Niebaum, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association. Demand for solar power and other advanced energy technologies continues to grow rapidly, she told Arkansas Business.

"Advanced energy companies are investing in local communities and creating jobs to meet that demand."

Beyond the 2018 numbers, the market seems poised for a surge, said Abigail Ross Harper, the SEIA's president and CEO.

"The solar industry experienced growing pains in 2018, in large part due to the unnecessary tariffs that were imposed on solar cells and modules, but this report still finds significant reason for optimism," she said in a statement. "The total amount of solar installed in America is on track to more than double in the next five years. It's clear; this next decade is going to be one of significant growth."

AAEA members leading the solar market include Arkansas Energy Ventures, Dadeni Solar, Delta SunEnergy, Entegrity, LightWave Solar, Ouachita Electric Cooperative Corp, Picasolar, Scenic Hill Solar, Seal Energy Solutions, Shine Solar, Silicon Ranch Corp., Solar & Renewable Power Systems, Sun City Solar Energy, The Stitt Group, Today's Power and Trem Wel Energy, Niebaum said.

She added that optimism is growing locally with the passage of Senate Bill 145, which will allow third-party leasing of solar equipment under the state's net metering program, letting homeowners, businesses and nonprofits partner with solar companies in arrays that could significantly cut energy bills.

The Business Innovations Legal Clinic of the William H. Bowen School of Law in Little Rock noted in February that the solar economy created 85 new jobs in Arkansas in 2018, and predicted the new law might double or even triple the number of solar installation jobs in the state.

The SEIA report found that through the end of 2018, Arkansas had 1490 megawatts of solar power installed, though that amounts to only 0.34 percent of the state's electricity total, enough to power about 17,000 homes. The trade group found that Arkansas has seven solar manufacturing companies, 18 installers/developers, and nine other related businesses. The total solar investment in the state was put at $181 million.

The third-party leasing law is expected to make solar projects more attractive to nontaxed organizations like nonprofits, cities and counties, government agencies and schools.

"States with third-party leasing have two or more times the number of solar jobs than states without," said the Bowen report, called "2019 Snapshot of Findings: Potential Effects of Third-Party Solar Leasing in Arkansas."

In just one example of the sorts of groups that might benefit from solar under the new law, Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock will break ground March 24 on a solar array to be installed by Seal Energy Solutions of North Little Rock.

That project includes 81 solar panels on a grass median in the south parking lot of the church offices on Pleasant valley Drive. The array will power the church complex.

"Solar panels are a public witness to our belief in renewable energy and a way to offset some long-term energy costs, while continuing our church's identity as a leader in the field of environmental stewardship," said the Rev. Stave Hancock, senior pastor.

The installation also will include an EV charging stations for electric vehicles. Church officials believe it will be the first EV charging station at a house of worship in Arkansas.

Other worship sites with solar installations in Arkansas include St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Little Rock; St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, Little Rock; Grace Community United Methodist Church, Fort Smith; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Mountain Home; First Presbyterian Church, Fayetteville; Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville; Omni Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology, Fayetteville; Ferncliff Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center, Little Rock.

Kyle Massey is a reporter for Arkansas Business.