The Sun Shines on New Crop in Spink County
Thursday, April 23, 2020
The renewable energy market has seen three-digit growth nationwide since the turn of the century. The use of solar power as a source of renewable energy is expected to reach 48 percent nationwide by 2050, making it the fastest-growing electricity source, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. In South Dakota this hasn’t been the case, but an unlikely group of Spink County farmers are looking to change that trend with the development of one of the state’s largest solar farms.
Farmers have always relied upon the sun to raise their crops, to create the energy within plants for growth and development. In the Upper Midwest however, the crop growing seasons are limited by the cyclical changes in weather, leaving fields frozen and snow covered for large parts of the year. So, these farmers thought, why not use this same essential source, the sun, to create and store energy which isn’t dependent upon the season. Energy captured with a large-scale array of solar panels and stored locally in containment facilities awaiting distribution could work year-round. Over a few cups of coffee, a new seed had been planted.
If you’re asking yourself, what do a group of farmers know about solar power, you’re not alone. The first step was to partner with their local economic development association to help them find a renewable energy consultant. Out of this need for knowledge, the group approached Giana Lantero, Executive Director at Grow Spink, when they were beginning their research into the solar industry, to help get them up to speed on how to develop their idea.
Roland Jurgens of the Thorstad Companies was soon brought on board as an energy consultant. Tulare Energy, LLC was formed by the farmer/owners, as the company of record. “I think how it started off is the reason why it was so quiet for so long,” explains Lantero. “It was a group of farmers and a local economic development organization researching how we could get this done, versus a company coming in and knowing all the answers and having a plan for everything and just trying to get everyone on board.”
Working with the economic development commission took a little longer, but it worked out for the best. “These farmers are very educated in how things work now. They're very comfortable with our project manager,” says Lantero, “so it’s worked out really well.” Lantero is proud of their involvement in the Tulare Energy project. She hopes other entrepreneurs or businesses contact her office to learn how Grow Spink can help their businesses ideas succeed. “It's been really nice for us to be a part of this and just show, this is what we do. This is exactly what we do.”
Birds-Eye View of Solar Farm
At a high-level view, the plans for the solar farm are to create a facility that can generate up to 66 megawatts with panels placed on private land leased to the project, at no cost to the county. In scale, it will take about 400 acres in total to house the panels, including the service and maintenance buildings, the electrical storage facility, and its substation.
On average, it takes about five to six acres to generate one megawatt of electricity. As a rule of thumb, a one-megawatt plant is capable of supplying power to about 200 households. A utility scale project typically has a range of 1,000’s of panels to 10,000’s of panels. A typical 72 cell panel is 39”x77.” Solar cells themselves are made out of silicon wafers. Wafers are made out of the element silicon, a hard, crystalline solid that is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen. Panels can last well past twenty years before replacement.
With wind power capturing most of the energy headlines, solar will soon be catching up. According to Jurgens, electricity generated from utility scale solar projects, like Tulare Energy, is rapidly becoming cost competitive with electricity generated from wind energy. Wind Energy is currently the lowest cost energy source in the central portion of the United States, and with modern forecasting, solar energy is more consistent and predictable.
“Solar Energy produces its energy at a time of day when energy is needed, so the energy is also more valuable. Wind energy projects are beginning to struggle to find electrical transmission capacity due to their size,” says Jurgens. To reach the optimal project size, wind energy projects must also be much larger than solar projects, making it difficult to connect wind energy projects to the grid.
Based on energy costs, solar energy is expected to grow very rapidly at utility scale in the next five years and will continue to grow at residential and utility scale in the following five years. According to Jurgens, electricity is sourced from the lowest cost resource. With current cost projections for solar, wind and storage, our region could supply significant amounts of electric generation with solar, wind and storage. It is just a question of what generation source is the lowest cost. Wind Energy already supplies our region with significant amounts of energy at very low costs and solar will do the same going forward.
At this stage in the project Tulare Energy is simultaneously working on several development tasks, says Jurgens. Near the top of the list is working closely with Spink County and both Townships on the agreements to protect local roads during construction. The other task is to negotiate a deal with “energy off takers,” for the energy generated. As the movie Field of Dreams alluded, if you build it, they will come.