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Why One Solar Power Project In South Dakota Will Rule Them All

Germany’s Wircon GmbH gains an edge with a new utility-scale solar power project in South Dakota that could open up the floodgates to more PV development.

South Dakota is finally on track to dip its toe in the utility-scale solar power waters for the very first time, with a 110-megawatt plant slated for construction on federal trust land in Oglala Lakota County, in the southwestern corner of the state. That’s a really big deal on a couple of different accounts, one of which is the potential for replicating similar arrangements all over federal trust lands.

Photo by Zach Shahan | CleanTechnica

Why Solar Power For South Dakota Is A Really Big Deal

To be clear, South Dakota is already up to its neck in other renewables. The state gets most of its electricity from hydropower and a generous amount from wind as well. South Dakota also happens to be one of the top ethanol producers in the US.

Still, the new power plant is significant because it busts the utility-scale solar power field wide open in a state where solar power barely registers. That could have a ripple effect on other nearby states that are lagging behind the solar curve.

The developer, Germany-based Wircon GmbH, is planning on a $100 million payout for 500,000 solar panels and $15 million on an underground connector cable, all up and running by 2021 under the name of Lookout Solar Park.

Look out, indeed. The new solar power plant represents a 180-degree turnaround for South Dakota. As recently as 2018, South Dakota ranked dead last for solar power among all 50 states and Puerto Rico. By the third quarter of 2019 it crept up to #50, with 0.01% of its electricity from solar and a total solar investment of just $3.07 million for 1.79 megawatts of installed capacity.

That’s less than any neighboring state with the notable exception of North Dakota, which could be the next domino to fall.

All else being equal, the new power plant will enable South Dakota to beat or come close to meeting most of its neighboring states in megawatts of installed solar.

More Room For Solar Growth In South Dakota

Another interesting aspect of the new power plant is South Dakota’s profile as a low-population state with an outsized thirst for energy. Thanks partly to its industrial sector and partly to its pattern of extremely hot summers and cold winters, South Dakota ranks right up there in the #8 spot for per capita energy consumption.

With electricity costs in the state running right around the national average, an investment in low cost solar power could help South Dakota attract new business investment.

That seems to be the idea, though as of last December the developer was still in search of a clean power buyer, according to local news reports (follow that link and support local journalism).

Wait, This Is What Makes South Dakota Solar Power So Special

The real meat of the transaction, though, is the lease deal that made it all happen. Follow that local link for all the details and you’ll get to the Rapid City Journal, which reports that the lease is a first-of-its-kind venture on tribal land.

As the Journal describes, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs holds the land in trust for a local family, whose members belong to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Apparently plans are already in the works to use the new lease format to develop more solar power plants on trust land.

The real question is how a solar developer from all the way over there in Germany ended up spearheading a groundbreaking new approach for investing in utility scale solar power on tribal lands.

For that matter, Wircon GmbH is known as a wind energy developer. However, the company has been taking a deep dive into the global solar field since its acquisition of the firm Wirsol in 2014, and it looks like the company foresees new opportunities in the US through its Wircon USA wind and solar subsidiary.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Wircon GmbH to find out how the company picked up the thread and followed it to South Dakota, and we’ll try for an update on that thing about finding a buyer, too.

Lookout Solar Park just received unanimous approval from the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission earlier this week, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be the next to weigh in. That’s not a done deal but the Bureau’s ongoing support for solar projects should help.

Also helping matters along is ongoing support from the Oglala Sioux government.

“I would like to see our Tribe convert the decaying fossil fuel economy into a new, green economy that is environmentally sustainable, economically secure and socially just, for the ultimate betterment of our future generations,” Oglala Sioux Tribal President Julian Bear wrote in a letter of support last year.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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