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 is taking the do-it-yourself approach to finding answers by installing a small solar array on one of its facilities.
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 Cooperative, 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.
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 conservation group.
Members can also follow the array’s output from an online dashboard 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 .
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.