Sustainability commitment leads BHSU to many ‘firsts’

Black Hills State University You are leaving WAPA.gov. (BHSU) in Spearfish, South Dakota, is joining other higher education leaders in renewable energy and sustainable operations by becoming the first university with extensive use of solar power.

The institutional WAPA customer is investigating installing solar panels on four campus buildings to serve those facilities’ energy needs and reduce electricity costs. The solar generation would replace supplemental power from Black Hills Energy and save BHSU an estimated $10,000 in the first year, according to information from the South Dakota Board of Regents.

Dedicated to sustainability
Cost savings—and a hedge against fuel prices—is a great reason for any business to install a renewable energy system, but for BHSU it is not the only one. The university was the first in South Dakota to join the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, You are leaving WAPA.gov. and under the Carbon Commitment program, You are leaving WAPA.gov. has set a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

This 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine in front of the LEED Gold-certified student union puts generates a small amount of electricity and raises awareness about renewable energy.

This 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine in front of BHSU’s LEED Gold-certified student union generates a small amount of electricity and raises awareness about renewable energy. (Photo by Black Hills State University)

The process began with a Climate Action Plan, and includes participation in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System You are leaving WAPA.gov. (STARS). The voluntary self-reporting system helps colleges and universities to assess progress in meeting sustainability goals and sustainability leadership. STARS ratings are based on three main categories: education and research; operation and planning; administration and engagement. On Earth Day 2014, BHSU received a STARS Silver rating, making it the first South Dakota university to achieve that international rating.

Among the “green” initiatives that helped BHSU earn its rating are strong building efficiency standards, a robust recycling program and a campus community garden. Campus dining facilities The Hive and The Buzz Shack both achieved Green Restaurant Certification You are leaving WAPA.gov. in 2014, the first university-attached restaurants in the state to do so.

The university has already made small forays into the use of renewables, installing solar-powered lighting at campus entrances and a 1.8-kilowatt wind turbine in front of the student union. “It puts a small amount of generation back onto the grid and provides an introduction to renewable energy for students and visitors,” said Corinne Hansen, BHSU director of university and community relations.

Everyone involved
BHSU students, faculty and staff serve on the Sustainability Committee, which recommends strategies to advance BHSU’s climate goals. This committee meets every semester to plan activities that promote sustainability efforts on campus, and to educate the campus community on sustainability issues.

Successful strategies include faculty carpool and bike leasing programs to cut down on emissions from commutes around town and between Spearfish and the BHSU Rapid City campus. Landscaping with a stormwater management system slows and diverts runoff.

Sustainability concepts have been incorporated into lesson plans and even art projects, including an exhibit at the student union of sculptures made from recycled materials. The school received a national grant to fund a research project on solar cell materials and students have developed business plans for an innovative mobile recycling business.

Building for future
As part of the Climate Action Plan, all new buildings and major renovations at BHSU are built to LEED You are leaving WAPA.gov. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver or higher standards. The David B. Miller Yellow Jacket Student Union was the first state building to earn this standard, earning LEED Gold after its 2009 renovation.

The LEED Silver Life Science Laboratory has been chosen as one of the four sites for the solar arrays. Features that earned the building its LEED rating include a design that maximizes daylighting; the incorporation of recycled and local materials during construction; low-flow plumbing fixtures and low emitting carpet, paint, adhesives and sealants.

The other three buildings identified for the solar project include the Young Center, Woodburn Hall and the library, with the Young Center to be the first. “All four buildings have new roofs and good solar exposure,” explained Hansen. “The Young Center has the biggest roof by square feet.”

Lighting retrofits have helped to reduce the electrical loads in the Young Center and the library.

More to come
The university expects installation of the solar panels to be completed this summer, but sustainability is more than just clean energy. BHSU aims to decrease its waste stream by 25 percent from 2014 to 2018 by expanding recycling initiatives and introducing a user-friendly, desk-side disposal system. Going beyond recycling, a plan to discourage the use of disposable water bottles was launched in 2014 with the installation of filtered water bottle-filling stations across campus. Facilities Services will continue to replace traditional water fountains with water bottle-refill stations as needed.

Building upgrades will continue to increase campus energy efficiency, especially areas where electricity or heating demands can be significantly reduced. A complete upgrade of the building automation system is planned for 2018. Also in the next year, BHSU is planning an energy savings performance contract covering all campus academic buildings.

Ultimately, these projects and new ones that will arise as BHSU moves toward climate neutrality are as much about the future of the students as the future of the planet. Renewable energy systems, energy efficiency and recycling will reduce the university’s operating costs over the long term, and the savings can be channeled into improving education. More importantly, embracing sustainability principles prepares students for a rapidly changing world in which they will have many opportunities to achieve their own “firsts.”

MRES, city of Pierre launch first South Dakota solar farm

The largest solar farm in South Dakota began producing electricity for Missouri River Energy Services You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MRES) customers, Sept. 30, after officials cut the ribbon on the one-megawatt (MW) array at the Pierre Regional Airport.

Pierre Utilities Director Brad Palmer (left) and Lead Lineman Devin Harris take a moment to enjoy a job well done. Harris was instrumental in tying the airport solar project to the city's distribution system.

Pierre Utilities Director Brad Palmer (left) and Lead Lineman Devin Harris take a moment to enjoy a job well done. Harris was instrumental in tying the airport solar project to the city’s distribution system.

The solar photovoltaic project, a joint effort by MRES, the city of Pierre You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Geronimo Energy You are leaving WAPA.gov. of Edina, Minnesota, covers 9 acres and will generate enough electricity to power 200 homes.

MRES CEO Tom Heller acknowledged that while the facility was significant for the state, it was nevertheless intended only as a demonstration project. “It’s not large. It’s the first one we’ve done. We just want to see what it will do,” Heller said in an interview with a local newspaper.

Identifying partners
That does not mean that bringing the project to completion was a simple task, however. “It doesn’t matter if the project is 1 MW or 100 MW, you have the same number of parts from planning perspective,” explained Jeff Peters, MRES director of federal and distributed power programs. “The sheer number of stakeholders who need to be engaged makes the process daunting.”

Peters ticked off a list that included environmental groups, Native American tribes, the Federal Aviation Administration, city and state regulators and the transmission provider (WAPA). “Even the local newspaper could be considered a stakeholder,” he pointed out. “You have to make sure you identify all of the interested parties and keep them updated on your progress.”

The distribution provider—Pierre Municipal Utilities—was on board with the project from the beginning. “Overall, the community was very much in favor of the project and excited to be hosting the largest solar facility in the state,” said Utilities Director Brad Palmer.

Geronimo Energy, developer and owner of “Pierre Solar LLC,” was another piece of the puzzle that slotted in easily. MRES has a relationship with the company that includes power purchase agreements for the output of two wind energy facilities in Minnesota. The innovative 25-year contract Geronimo structured reduced costs for MRES versus a more traditional deal. The entire output of the solar project will become part of MRES’s wholesale power supply for the benefit of its 60 member communities.

Building easier, not easy
After conducting a solar feasibility study with Geronimo in 2015, MRES chose Pierre for its first solar project.

As a solar site, the Pierre Regional Airport offered many advantages, including a surprisingly high number of sun days and its status as a brownfield. “MRES didn’t want to use any cropland for the demonstration, or property that had residential or commercial potential,” explained Joni Livingston, MRES director of communications and member services.

The proposed site also boasted a southward slope with no obstructions and no need to build transmission. “This was a ‘behind the meter’ installation,” said Peters.

Palmer noted that the location was about as close to a substation as you can get, making it easy to tie into the city’s distribution system. The biggest challenge, he added, came in the form of paperwork. “The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] had several requirements, including a “glint and glare” study,” Palmer noted. “Another wrinkle is that the Department of Defense was the previous owner of the airport. There were some strings attached when they deeded it to the city, so that added to the authorizations we needed. Eventually, everyone signed off, so it wasn’t so much a barrier as it was just a matter of lengthy application process.”

Partners and stakeholders turned out in force to cut the ribbon on South Dakota's first utility-scale solar farm. From left: Hunter Roberts, assistant energy director, South Dakota Governor's Office; Jeff Peters, director of federal & distributed power programs, Missouri River Energy Services; Harold Schiebout, president, MRES board of directors; Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill; Tom Heller, MRES CEO; Noel Rahn, chairman of Geronimo Energy; and Leon Schochenmaier, city administrator, Pierre Municipal Utilities. Read more.

Partners and stakeholders turned out in force to cut the ribbon on South Dakota’s first utility-scale solar farm. From left: Hunter Roberts, assistant energy director, South Dakota Governor’s Office; Jeff Peters, director of federal & distributed power programs, Missouri River Energy Services; Harold Schiebout, president, MRES board of directors; Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill; Tom Heller, MRES CEO; Noel Rahn, chairman of Geronimo Energy; and Leon Schochenmaier, city administrator, Pierre Municipal Utilities. Read more. (Photo by ©2016. Patrick Callahan).

Up, running
Now that the Pierre Solar LLC has been operational for a few weeks, MRES is just beginning the learning phase of its demonstration. “We are hoping to learn more about interconnecting with the local distribution system, and the array’s effect on the community’s power quality and reliability,” Livingston said. “We will be watching to see how much electricity it produces and at what time of day and how that relates to peak demand. Once we have that information, it may lead to more solar installations.”

Palmer pointed out that there is room at the Pierre Regional Airport for the solar array to expand. He likes the idea of utility-scale and community solar as a way of giving customers more clean energy. “From the utility standpoint, it is easier to integrate and safer for our workers,” Palmer acknowledged. “The economy of scale also makes it more cost effective for the consumers.”

For Peters, the lessons so far are holistic rather than technical. “Each project is different, so you will learn something new with each one,” he said. “The planning process can always improve.”

Sioux Valley Energy dips toe in solar power for members

The words “renewable energy” and “South Dakota” usually call up images of wind turbines rather than solar panels, and rightly so—the state has almost 900 megawatts (MW) of installed wind capacity, compared to less than 300 kilowatts (kW) of solar. Under those circumstances, you might expect South Dakota consumers and utilities both to have a lot of questions about solar power. Sioux Valley Energy You are leaving Western's site. is taking the do-it-yourself approach to finding answers by installing a small solar array on one of its facilities.

Sioux Valley Energy employees work together to install a 24-kilowatt solar array on the cooperative’s Brandon, South Dakota, service center. The demonstration project is a learning experience for both the electric cooperative and its members. (Photo by Sioux Valley Energy)

Sioux Valley Energy employees work together to install a 24-kilowatt solar array on the cooperative’s Brandon, South Dakota, service center. The demonstration project is a learning experience for both the electric cooperative and its members. (Photo by Sioux Valley Energy)

The 24-kW array on the Brandon, South Dakota, service center consists of 80 panels, aimed in three different directions to determine which configurations work best during peak energy use times. In addition to siting, Sioux Valley is also collecting data on selecting equipment, cost benefit and installation.

Carrie Law, the cooperative’s director of Communications and Government Relations, explained, “Our members want to know more about distributed generation and how solar panels perform in our climate. We wanted our employees to get experience with the systems, too,” she added. “In the long run, that experience is likely to be worth more than the small amount of power the system generates.”

Well-rounded solar education
The demonstration project became something of a crash course in solar for Sioux Valley employees. A committee drawn from customer electrical services, customer service, accounting and engineering was involved at every step, from surveying members about their interest in solar to designing and installing the array. “The board asked us basically to throw everything solar on the table,” said Reggie Gassman, manager of Customer Electrical Services.

Installation turned out to be one of the easier parts of the project, noted Law. “Panels are designed now so that it is not that difficult to put them up,” she said. “From a safety standpoint, though, it is always good to work with qualified technicians. We want our members to know that their utility can provide that expertise now.”

All fired up
The array began generating power in May, with the south and southwest panels being the high performers. “That was pretty much to be expected,” said Law. “It will change come fall and winter. We will need to collect a lot more data before we are ready to draw any conclusions about performance,” she added.

If members are interested in learning how solar performs in the local climate, the utility wants to know more about how it performs in relation to peak demand. Once a winter-peaking utility, Sioux Valley now faces the challenge of a diverse load that includes agriculture customers, data centers and a growing residential territory. East River Electric Power CooperativeYou are leaving Western's site. one of Sioux Valley’s wholesale power suppliers, connected the array to a SCADA system. “That should give us some good information on peak offset,” observed Gassman.

Waiting, watching
Now that the solar array is up and generating, members are taking a wait-and-see approach. That is not surprising, given that the survey the employee committee conducted last fall showed that people wanted more data to help them make informed decisions. “We already knew that our members are very interested in solar power, and that came out in the survey,” Gassman noted, “but so did their concern about costs and payback. That is why we chose the demonstration route.”

In the meantime, members can see the solar system when they drive by the service center, which is located on a main road between Brandon and Sioux Falls. Managers from other co-ops have toured the facility, and Gassman recently gave a presentation on the project to the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League You are leaving Western's site. conservation group.

Members can also follow the array’s output from an online dashboard You are leaving Western's site. that displays the kilowatt-hours generated each day and a monthly comparison. “We have been urging members to use the website, and one recently came up to me on a camping trip to tell me that he is monitoring the project,” said Law.

Next step for renewables
The data Sioux Valley is collecting will help the co-op determine how solar fits into its overall mix and what direction a member program might take. Gassman thinks it may take several years for solar to really catch on in South Dakota. “We have such affordable rates right now that renewable energy doesn’t really pencil out for most people. But the survey indicated that members believe renewables should play a part in Sioux Valley’s future portfolio,” he acknowledged.

The co-op’s portfolio already includes about 15 member-owned solar systems, hydropower, waste heat recovery, a small amount of biogas from manure digesters and wind. Most of the wind comes from generation-and-transmission co-ops East River and Basin Electric Power Cooperative You are leaving Western's site..

Future regulation, new technology, changes in the economy and environmental concerns are likely to factor into shaping Sioux Valley’s energy mix, as well. The one thing utilities can count on today is that tomorrow will be different. Fortunately, with a board, staff and members who are willing to learn something new, Sioux Valley Energy will be prepared for whatever comes next.