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With its 4,284 solar panels installed on about 9 acres on the corner grounds of the Pierre Regional Airport, this 1-megawatt solar farm is South Dakota's largest and supplies power to Pierre's municipal power grid. IMAGE: City of Pierre

Steve Wegman, South Dakota Renewable Association: How South Dakota can let the sun shine in

PIERRE, S.D. – “Solar power in South Dakota has high potential but little practical application," Wikipedia notes.

"The state ranked 50th among U.S. states in installed solar power in 2015," despite the fact that "the state is ranked 14th in the country in solar power potential."

Why this disparity? And what could be done to help South Dakota better realize its high solar-power potential?

That's what this column is about.

While South Dakota has been known as populist region politically, the state has not been known for leading economic or social change. In part, that’s because South Dakota is a rural state with very scattered population.

So, while Minnesota’s electricity consumption is about 16,000 megawatts on peak days, South Dakota’s comparable figure is only about 4,400 megawatts. Furthermore, South Dakotans pay less for electricity than do most Americans, further eroding any incentive for residents to switch to solar power.

No wonder that when it comes to solar energy, South Dakota finds itself following rather than leading the parade.

Nevertheless, South Dakota has as many sunny days as Florida, which gives the state its high solar-power potential mentioned above. And times are changing: These days, the cost of large- or utility-scale solar installations has fallen almost as low as the cost of new coal-fired plants.

To take full advantage of this trend, the state of South Dakota should do two things.

  • First, give large-scale solar projects the same tax and incentive treatment that large wind projects get;
  • And second, fund a field verification of National Renewable Energy Laboratory solar maps, a project of very modest cost.

The state of South Dakota helped the wind industry by bringing the taxes paid by wind farms more in line with those paid by other high-cost, capital-intensive projects. The incentives worked: While no company in the history of South Dakota had ever invested more that $60 million in a construction season before 2003, the renewable energy industries have invested more than $2 billion since then.

Likewise, the state of South Dakota also helped with high-tower wind monitoring from 2001 to 2005, a vital practice that helps assess and predict wind resources in complex terrain.

Without that monitoring, the only wind development likely would have been east of Interstate 29 in South Dakota. With the monitoring, we saw in wind development in Campbell, McPherson, Brule, Clark, Day, Hyde, Hand, Jerauld, Aurora, Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties, all of them west of I-29.

Meanwhile, there are many good installation sites for large-scale solar in South Dakota that are practically shovel-ready. For example, there are some 20 existing generator facilities in the state that are used to backup the existing grid. These facilities already are connected to the grid and have utility agreements in place, which means solar panels could be quickly installed.

And once that happens, the generators could start supplying electrical energy to utilities at peak times during the day.

The South Dakota Legislature begins its 2019 session on Jan. 8. If lawmakers and the public take time to learn more about these opportunities, their reasonable costs and their short payback periods, South Dakota quickly could move from the back to the front of the solar-energy parade.

Steve Wegman

Analyst, South Dakota Renewable Association

Pierre, S.D.