Solar surge: South Dakota sees new interest in solar power – Mitchell Republic

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NEW UNDERWOOD, S.D. — Despite being home to wide-open spaces and abundant sunshine, South Dakota ranks 47th in the nation for production of solar power and has lagged well behind other states for decades.

Less than a year ago, the only utility-scale solar farm in South Dakota was a 1-megawatt facility near Pierre, which became operational in 2016 and accounted for just 0.01% of the state’s overall power generation.

But recent developments have brightened the outlook for future development of medium- and large-scale solar power projects.

Driven by new federal sustainable energy tax credits, a national mandate to move energy production away from coal, and a desire by power companies to diversify their sources of energy, the state has seen increased interest in the development of new solar farms and electricity transmission lines to generate and transport more solar energy in South Dakota.

Chris Nelson, a member of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, said he doesn’t expect solar power generation to become as widespread in the state as wind power has over the past decade.

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“We’re certainly in a period where there’s a lot of investigation of solar being done around the state. That is absolutely true,” he said.

New solar projects coming online

The solar surge began in September 2023 when power began flowing from the 80-megawatt Fall River Solar facility near Oelrichs, southeast of Hot Springs. That project, owned by New York-based Greenbacker Renewable Energy, will provide enough electricity to power almost 18,000 households a year for customers of Rapid City-based Black Hills Energy, which is buying the electricity produced.

Another jolt forward came in March 2024, when the massive Wild Springs Solar facility began operating on nearly 2 square miles of prairie just south of New Underwood. That $190 million solar energy project, built and owned by National Grid Renewables of Bloomington, Minnesota, will produce up to 128 megawatts of energy that will be purchased by Basin Electric Power Cooperative of Bismarck, North Dakota.

On the east side of the state, a new 345-kilovolt transmission line expansion has been proposed to carry wind and solar power from Big Stone City to Becker, Minnesota, for service to communities across both states. Missouri River Energy Services of Sioux Falls is a partner in the project that was announced in fall 2023.

MRES already has plans to build a 5-megawatt solar power generating facility on an 80-acre site south of Brookings that could begin generating power by 2025.

The South Dakota PUC in 2020 granted approval for the proposed

Lookout Solar Project

north of Pine Ridge in Oglala Lakota County, though that project has stalled.

Wild Springs Solar Project near New Underwood, South Dakota.

(Courtesy photo)

At Basin Electric, that diversification has resulted in a dramatic shift in how it has obtained energy.

Basin received 84% of its power load from coal in 2000 and the remainder from hydropower, oil and diesel sources. None of it came from natural gas or wind.

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In 2022, the company received 39% of its energy from coal, 24% from wind, 17% from natural gas, and the rest from hydroelectric and other sources.

“We were early adopters in wind, and now we’re pioneers on the solar end of things,” said Andy Buntrock, a vice president at Basin.

Even as interest in solar and wind power continues to rise, Basin is likely to maintain some energy sources powered by fossil fuels, he said.

“We can’t rely totally on one of those types of (renewable) energy because on a cold winter morning when it’s cloudy and there’s no wind, we’ll still be keeping our members warm with natural gas and coal and diesel,” he said.

Tax incentives driving solar growth

The tax incentive picture has brightened significantly in recent years to encourage more development of solar power, particularly on the federal level, said Tim Blodgett, vice president of member services and communications at MRES.

New tax credit programs can be “pancaked” on top of other grant and loan programs to allow credits of up to 60% or new investments, he said.

“There’s increased regulation that is making (solar) much more lucrative on the financial front,” he said.

The Inflation Reduction Act

passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in 2022 includes $370 billion in tax credits and other support for clean energy initiatives, including solar.

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Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has opted not to take part in opportunities from the federal government to expand solar power generation in the state.

NoemStateofState.jpg

Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, in Pierre.

(Samantha Laurey / Argus Leader)

Last year, South Dakota was one of six states that did not apply for funding under the $7 billion

Solar for All

federal initiative that provides grants to states, tribes and communities to install solar projects in low-income areas.

The state also decided against applying for a $3 million federal

Climate Pollution Reduction Grant

that would have funded state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for Noem, previously told News Watch that the governor reviews all federal funding opportunities and rejects some because they often come with “strings attached.”

For homeowners who want to explore solar as a way to reduce home energy costs, the PUC said it works best on rooftops facing south with a slope of 15 to 40 degrees.

Taxpayers might be eligible for a 26% federal tax write-off for qualifying projects. The state of South Dakota also provides a property tax exemption on the first $50,000 or 70% of assessed value of household solar power systems, whichever is greater, according to the PUC.

PUC Commissioner Nelson said he doesn’t believe the American power grid can survive completely on the wind, sun and batteries to provide consistent electricity.

“When it’s 25 degrees below zero, you want your house to stay warm because at that point, it’s a life-and-death issue, and not a convenience issue.”

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This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at

sdnewswatch.org

and sign up for an email every few days to get stories as soon as they’re published. Contact Bart Pfankuch at [email protected].   

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