South Dakota was once a quiet backwater for solar activity in the US, but no more. A major electricity wholesaler just inked its first ever solar energy deal to create the largest ever solar farm in South Dakota, and the ripple effect could spill out into 8 other states in the region. That includes neighboring Wyoming, where coal stakeholders are desperately clinging to carbon capture for survival. Right, good luck with that.
Solar Energy Breakthrough In South Dakota
Wild Springs is the name of the South Dakota’s new 128 megawatt solar farm, to be located about 20 miles east of Rapid City in Pennington County.
After all, solar farms in the 100+ megawatt range are a dime a dozen these days.
Two things make the Wild Spring project especially newsworthy. One thing is how it shoots the state’s solar profile from practically zero to sixty in just two years, when Wild Springs is scheduled to go into operation.
Practically zero is the word. As of 2018, South Dakota ranked practically dead last in solar development among the 50 US states and Puerto Rico, with a little less than 1.8 megawatts of installed capacity.
The Solar Energy Ripple Effect
The output of the new solar farm is already spoken for by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, an energy wholesaler that is new to the solar field.
Basin sells electricity to 141 member cooperatives that serve about 3 million customers in nine states, including Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming, as well as South Dakota.
One of those member coops is West River Electric Association, which serves the area in which the new solar farm will be located.
In a press release, West River CEO and General Manager Dick Johnson touched on the connection between the new solar farm and the community service mission of rural electric cooperatives.
“This solar energy project will benefit the cooperative family, as well as our local communities,” he said, “As not-for-profit co-ops that are owned by our members, everything we do goes back to the people we serve.”
Geronimo also deployed the same press release to pitch solar throughout the whole region.
“Historically, there has been a misconception that solar in the northern regions of the United States wasn’t feasible,” said Geronimo President David Reamer, adding that “Geronimo and Basin Electric recognized that the addition of solar to its overall generation fleet not only offers customers a clean, economic option for their electricity, but it also diversifies a utility’s portfolio.”
Shedding The Fossil Fuel Mantle, Eventually
Basin CEO and General Manager Paul Sukot also nailed down the economic benefits angle.
“The board’s decision to add solar generation to our resource portfolio is to continue with our all-of-the-above strategy, as well as solar generation becoming a more economic energy source,” he said.
That emphasis on economics is interesting, considering that Basin currently relies almost entirely on coal and natural gas. Shedding its reliance on fossil fuels will be a long, involved task. The community service mission of rural electric cooperatives also requires Basin to take local employment into account, which adds another layer of complexity.
However, Basin seems intent on demonstrating that renewable energy projects can fulfill the same mission.
Basin already has some wind energy in its power generation mix, but it’s not just any old wind energy. Basin bills its 162-megawatt Crow Lake wind farm as a “first-of-its-kind community wind investment partnership” that doubles as a teaching platform for wind technician trainees. It happens to be the largest exclusively coop-owned wind farm in the US, at least for now.
Chances are that Basin is looking at side benefits for its new solar project, too. Geronimo estimates economic benefits of more than $17 million in the first 20 years of operation for Wild Springs, counting tax revenues as well as full-time jobs and temporary construction jobs.
Solar Energy Meets Carbon Capture, Hilarity Ensues
Meanwhile over in Wyoming, legislators seeking to pacify coal stakeholders are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.
On the rock side, a group of Wyoming legislators came up with a measure to save coal power plants in the state, but opponents argue that the plan would stick 140,000 ratepayers in Wyoming with an estimated $7,000.00 each in extra costs to pay for retrofitting existing coal power plants with carbon capture equipment.
That’s also the hard place, come to think of it.
According to our friends over at IEEFA, the new legislation is aimed mainly at the company PacifiCorp, which has announced plans to mothball a total of 9 coal units by 2028 and replace that capacity with renewables.
Aside from the economic benefits of wind and solar, PacifiCorp is looking to retain a chunk of the electricity markets in Washington, Oregon, and California. All three states moving toward a zero carbon electricity scenario. If PacifiCorp stays glued to coal, it will have to seek markets elsewhere.
Even with carbon capture, the new legislation would reportedly drive emissions from coal power plants down to the range of natural gas plants, which is not exactly what comes to mind when the topic turns to zero carbon.
Only time will tell if the Wyoming legislation is successful. In the meantime, CleanTechnica is reaching out to Basin for some insights about the benefits of solar energy to its member coops, so stay tuned for more on that.
Photo (cropped) courtesy of Geronimo Energy