Future’s So Bright: Delta Solar CEO Niebaum sees sunny future for alternative energy
January 10-16, 2022
By Dwain Hebda
To say that Katie Laning Niebaum’s route to the helm of Delta Solar was a scenic one is putting it nicely. The 40-year-old took over as president of the Little Rock-based alternative energy company in September, an office she never imagined filling coming out of Little Rock Central High, or the University of Virginia after that.
“I think if you had asked 22-year-old Katie, ‘Would you be in the solar industry one day?’ that would not have been on the radar,” she said. “But looking back, I do think every step led me to this place.”
In fact, Niebaum’s “accidental” path to her current gig couldn’t look more intentional, starting with gaining trade association experience at the national and state levels, the latter being for the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, no less. And she arrives at Delta Solar at a time when the five-year-old company is making big strides in the state.
“I see a lot of opportunity in Arkansas. We have some favorable policies around net metering and meter aggregation that allow businesses to capitalize on solar,” she said. “If you drive down [U.S. Highway] 65 down
in Southeast Arkansas you will see quite a few Delta Solar projects where historically, we have done a fair number of ag installations. We will definitely be continuing to do that as well as looking to grow our commercial projects.”
Rosy predictions are nothing new in the solar industry but realizing that potential has historically been slow in coming. Solar power has been touted as the answer to America’s energy issues since the 1970s, per the Institute for Energy Research — cleaner than coal, safer than nuclear, more replenishable than oil. Looking for a way out of the energy crisis, federal lawmakers passed five energy bills in 1974, two of which pushed solar as the salvation to the nation’s oil dependence woes. These bills spurred research and development and mandated federal buildings to be outfitted with solar heating and cooling units.
By the end of the decade, a new government entity had formed to oversee development and commercialization of solar, along with financial incentives via tax credits for businesses and citizens to install such systems. For all that the decade poured into the technology — capped by President Jimmy Carter ordering solar panels installed on the White House roof in 1979 — the alternative energy looked poised for widespread adoption going forward.
But other than being a perennial favorite talking point on the campaign trail, solar didn’t generate much buzz on America’s energy landscape, accounting for less than one percent of total U.S. net electricity generation throughout the 1980s, 1990s and first decade of the 2000s. Since sustainability and carbon footprint became hot topics (boosted by President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package of 2009 which poured unprecedented subsidies into the industry), the last decade has looked very different for the solar industry.
As PV Magazine reported
in November, solar power accounted for 3% of the nation’s total annual electricity generation in 2020, and is expected to bump to 5% this year, and nearly triple that by 2035. This growth was fueled in part by a shift from small-scale solar dominating the market, accounting for 68% of generation in 2011, to today where nearly 70% of solar-generated electricity comes from large-scale electrical utilities, the magazine said. Such large-scale adoption has forecasters bullish on the energy going forward; some predict 20% of the nation’s electricity in 2050 will come from the sun.
Such stats are very familiar to Niebaum, who said rapid improvement in solar technology is one big reason for the dramatic rise in adoption. Systems can be installed more cheaply now, she said, especially given incentives and tax breaks that speed return on investment.
“It’s an economics issue,” she said. “A few years ago, a homeowner or a business chose to implement solar more for the environmental benefits than
the economic benefits. Now, it’s very clear that whatever your reason, it’s going to make sense economically.”
As solar becomes more visible, the public is taking notice of which companies are getting on board. Those that do are being rewarded in the marketplace — as Forbes reported in 2019, more than 80% of people in an international survey reported respecting companies and brands that adopt practices perceived as eco-friendly.
“Certainly, there is this growing movement for companies, whatever service you’re providing or product you’re producing, environmental sustainability and clean energy are important to your customers,” Niebaum said. “We see a growing number of companies where that is part of their values, and they have to figure out a way to communicate that they are in lockstep with their customers. As that has grown up, adoption of solar technology has followed.”
Such is not to say that the alternative energy is selling itself, which is why Niebaum sees messaging as one of the stiffest challenges still facing the industry in general and Delta Solar in particular.
“I think it’s a challenge and an opportunity, to tell that whole industry story and how all the different technologies work together,” she said. “Making sure that the public understands that it’s a lot of different technologies working together. Storage wasn’t even something that we were talking about a couple of years ago and now that’s certainly a growing part of the conversation.”
Niebaum comes to the role of president with well-honed communication chops. After 13 years in Washington D.C. where she worked for former Sen. Blanche Lincoln and the National Restaurant Association, she returned to Arkansas in 2016 to head the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association.
“Being able to use the advocacy and communication skills that I acquired in my time on Capitol Hill and on Senator Lincoln’s senate reelection campaign in 2010 was very helpful in both of those trade association roles,” she said.
As for Delta Solar specifically, she said her consensus- and partnership-building skills will be of particular usefulness, given the company’s track record of working with municipalities. Such projects typically include lots of moving stakeholder parts that need to find common ground to move forward.
“If something’s impacting the industry, it’s also impacting consumers and other related groups. People can have different priorities but you want to make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction and that takes work,” she said. “That’s certainly true in trade associations, when you’re relying on partners who have the same goal, be it getting a piece of legislation enacted at the state legislature, or an important regulatory debate going on at the public service commission.”
Niebaum said Arkansas has begun to fashion itself as a solar-friendly state on the legislative front, with new statutes that are creating substantial market opportunities. Despite supply chain woes and the lingering labor shortage, she’s optimistic overall about what lies ahead in the new year and beyond.
“I expect more and more cities, counties and schools to take advantage of the benefits of solar through legislation that was passed in 2019, the Solar Access Act,” she said. “It’s a financing mechanism that allows them to do a lease agreement. Those entities, being public entities, couldn’t take advantage of solar tax credits but through these lease agreements, that becomes a more viable arrangement.”
“I also think there are a lot of untapped commercial opportunities in all four corners of the state. Arkansas is a bit of a late adopter to solar, but that just means that there’s a long runway ahead of us.”