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