South Dakota has some innovators taking advantage of solar power, but we're still behind the rest of the country in squeezing electricity from all that free nuclear fusion from heaven.

Nerd Wallet ranks states for residential solar energy based on 2011 data. They factor in the amount of sun each state gets, how much electricity costs (i.e., how much homeowners can save by making their own power), how much each state promotes investment in solar, and how much solar power is already put to use. The top states are sunny California, Hawaii, and Arizona, followed by much less sunny Maryland and Delaware.

How does South Dakota rank?

  • In solar potential, we tie with Indiana for 27th. Indiana still produces 35 times more solar power than we do. States that get less sun than we do but which are using more solar power include Minnesota, Washington, West Virginia, Maine, and Rhode Island.
  • Our monthly electric bills are 31st in the nation. Among the 19 states where your monthly juice is cheaper are Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, and Wyoming. North Dakota's are just one rank higher than ours.
  • We're 41st in state incentives. South Dakota's utilities like things the way they are, and they work hard to make sure the Legislature and PUC keep them that way.
  • We tie for last place with North Dakota, Iowa, and Alaska for megawatts of solar power produced. Now you may think that since we're a smaller state with fewer power users, that ranking doesn't mean much. But grab the Energy Information Administration data Nerd Wallet uses, multiply consumers by average consumption, and figure solar capacity as a percentage of total consumption, and South Dakota still ranks 46th. The only states with lower solar capacity per consumption are Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa. (Note: Iowa appears to have multiplied its solar capacity in 2012 by a factor of 10.)

Dakota Rural Action is promoting small-scale distributed power generation like solar power for good reason. Other states with less sun show we can do more with solar. We need a little more political will to make it happen.

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It's not a power revolution yet, but South Dakotans are showing that solar power isn't just for sunny California and Arizona.

First, near Pierre, one family traded propane for solar-boosted electric heat:

...one customer with a larger array of 15 solar panels just outside of Pierre has already done the math and computed the savings over the past winter....

The homeowners said that previously, they would spend roughly $2,300 for propane for the months of October through April, or roughly $328 per month, in addition to an electric bill which was usually about $80 per month. That came to a total of about $408 a month.

Now, however, the homeowners calculates that their electric bill – after they made the switch from propane to a solar array feeding first into a heat pump – has averaged $167 a month. And that was over the winter.

“With these numbers, we are saving $241 per month,” the homeowners said in their note to Manning. “Can’t wait to see what the summer will bring” [Lance Nixon, "Cheaper, Improved Solar Power Making Inroads in SD," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.06.27].

That's energy and cost savings in winter, when South Dakota's snow and frost, not to mention latitude, reduce solar panel effectiveness. Indeed, bring on summer!

Meanwhile, in Sioux Falls, retired science teacher Jamie Fisk has been using solar power for decades:

Since installing a solar water heating system 40 years ago, Fisk has been moved by the elegance of using the sun’s energy directly, rather than waiting for it to grow a forest that decays over thousands of years into coal that is mined and sold to a utility, which burns it to heat water into steam to spin a turbine that makes electricity that is sold and distributed through a power transmission grid.

In 1998, Fisk put solar panels on his roof to generate electricity and has since expanded the setup with additional panels on towers. These afford easier access than the roof when snow piles up [Peter Harriman, "Solar Power Enthusiast Hopes Others Go off the Grid," that Sioux Falls paper, 2013.06.22].

Harriman's headline isn't quite right: rather than advocating everyone go off the grid, Fisk wants South Dakota to join 46 other states that offer policies like net metering to encourage people to install solar and other renewable home power generation technology. We don't need everyone to install solar panels; we just need to recognize and reward the value that solar power enthusiasts create for everyone on the grid by investing in renewable home power generation.

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The Solar Foundation has mapped jobs created by the solar power industry in each state:

Solar Jobs per capita by state 2012

(click to embiggen!)

Sunny California leads the nation in solar jobs, followed by Arizona. One would expect lots of solar power jobs in such sunny places. But #3 in total solar jobs is New Jersey. Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and Ohio also make this top ten. Compare those states solar-job performance with the amount of sunshine they get that could produce electricity:

USSolarPVPotentialAnnual-NREL

(click to embiggen!)

Six of the top ten solar-job states have less photovoltaic solar power to exploit than South Dakota. So does our snowy neighbor Minnesota, which has more folks working on solar panels than we do. South Dakota is at the bottom of the pile with Wyoming and West Virginia. We have a relative wealth of sunlight, more in West River than East, but we let it go to waste. Our state encourages dreamers to punch holes in the ground hunting for black gold, but it ignores the solar gold falling plainly on our heads (well, not this morning, but more of the time than in New Jersey!).

According to this summary, California has more solar workers than actors. Texas has more solar workers than ranchers. Nationwide, solar power puts 119,000 people to work, more than the coal mining industry. If solar jobs keep growing at the rates seen since 2010, the U.S. will add 20,000 solar power jobs this year. That's more jobs than we'll ever see from the Keystone XL pipeline, temporary or permanent.

Just as with our under-tapped wind resources, South Dakota is failing to capitalize on its strong potential for solar energy. Forget looking for seepage from the Bakken; let's concentrate on developing our clean and abundant renewable resources for South Dakota energy independence.

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Spring hasn't felt terribly sunny here in South Dakota, but it has for the solar power industry. The Solar Energy Industries Association notes with pride that every megawatt of new electricity generation capacity built in March comes from solar energy. They note that their industry "employs 119,000 workers throughout the country. That’s a 13.2 percent growth over 2011’s jobs numbers, making solar one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the nation."

But solar still has a long way to go to catch up with other sources of electricity in the United States:

Total Installed Operating Generating Capacity, U.S. Electricity, by source, FERC: Office of Energy Products, Energy Infrastructure Update for March 2013

FERC: Office of Energy Products, Energy Infrastructure Update for March 2013

Solar photovoltaic technology currently produces 0.44% of electricity in the United States. That makes solar #8 in meeting our electrical demand, behind coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, wind, oil, and biomass, and just ahead of geothermal steam. That 0.44% lags significantly behind Germany's 6.2% (despite getting much less sun than the U.S.) and Spain's 10%. And it's small potatoes compared to the 29% the World Wildlife Fund and envisions as part of a perfectly feasible goal of nearly 100% renewable power by 2050.

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I'm on the Dakota Rural Action committee that brought you the net-metering bill this Legislative session. Net metering (paying people for the useful surplus power that they produce with renewable power devices) is one way to promote small-scale, community-based energy (read: self-reliance, Governor Daugaard!).

That may be part of why South Dakota utilities didn't like our bill. They may be worried that rooftop solar panels and wind turbines will do to them what blogs and other social media are doing to the Rapid City Journal and that Sioux Falls paper (hat tip to Mr. Gibilisco!):

Every new solar panel installed on European rooftops chips away at power utilities' centralized production model. Unless they reinvent themselves soon, these giants risk becoming the dinosaurs of the energy market.

The industry faces drastic change as renewable energy turns consumers into producers and hollows out the dominance of utilities [Geert De Clercq, "Renewables Turn Utilities into Dinosaurs of the Energy World," Reuters, 2013.03.08].

Consumers, producers... conducers!

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says the United States added 433 megawatts of new electrical production capacity last month. Every erg-per-second of that juice came from renewable energy installations. 300 megawatts of wind power, 133 megawatts of solar power—all green. Take that, Koch Brothers!

Speaking of whom, the fossil-fuel lobby is working to destroy the Production Tax Credit that would boost American wind power production even more. Remember, that's the same position Mitt Romney takes, wanting to shut down more South Dakota jobs.

We should be thrilled to see a whole bunch of electricity placed online that doesn't require burning up more finite resources. Wind and sunshine don't run out... at least not for another five billion years. We should celebrate shifting more of our energy to clean sources and vote out those who would keep rejiggering our laws and economy to favor faster consumption of dirty fuel that will run out just for short-term profit.

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I can think of only two logical explanations for Mitt Romney's reiteration of the GOP's Drill Baby Drill energy plan:

  1. He just got some big donations from Big Oil executives.
  2. He's a catastrophic millennialist: Jesus is coming, so why save fossil fuels for the grandkids? Burn, baby, burn!

Romney slipped when he announced his energy plan yesterday. He started to say "American energy..." then quickly corrected himself and emphasized "North American energy" (the NPR transcript simply elides the slip, but listen to the audio). Steve Sibson should be going ape over this NAFTA-globalism... but I have a feeling Sibby isn't going to help us point out the real problems with Romney's energy plan. So here goes:

First, Romney relies almost exclusively on increased production and use of fossil fuels. He expresses no concern for the pollution, disease, and other environmental externalities that will inevitably result. Far from it: he calls the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations "outdated." Pollute more, regulate less: I can't make the Romney-GOP agenda any more clear and concise.

Second, Romney dismisses wind and solar as "failure[s]" and "fads." Hmm... wind and solar provided 15% of the European Union's electricity at the end of 2011, including 68% of the new electrical capacity in Europe last year. But Romney doesn't want us to be more like Europe... unless he's discussing nuclear plants, on which topic he touts France's construction of fifteen new nuclear power plants over the last three decades. Solar power use is growing exponentially. And we don't even need new technology: if we just stuck with our current wind and solar tech, we could meet 80% of America's electricity needs with renewable energy by 2050. The only failure here is Romney's failure of will; the only fad is oil, which greases Romney's palms now but will dry up long before the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

Third, Romney does not mention conservation. He only mentions the word conservative once, as a paste-on and contradictory label for regulatory "reform" (odd: conservatives by definition prefer the status quo, not big changes), increasing production (the absolute opposite of conserving), and funding basic research (vague and not inherently conservative or liberal). American oil demand is trending flat for numerous reasons, not the least of which is sensible conservation. We could be energy judo masters (like France and China), winning independence with the energy we don't use. But apparently conservation and efficiency are not manly enough for Republicans, for whom the only route to greatness is to punch holes in everything.

Fourth, Romney hilariously thinks the Keystone XL pipeline will bring all that Canadian oil to our market. Keystone XL will take oil directly to the Gulf of Mexico and tankers waiting to haul it to China. Romney also pumps the long-refuted myth that Keystone XL will bring 100,000 new jobs.)

The only possible merit to Mitt Romney's plan is reform by catastrophism: we'll leave our kids in such a dire economic and environmental situation that they'll have to make large-scale renewable energy work... because we'll have burned up everything else.

North America is already headed for an energy surplus by 2030; any more oil that we produce is headed for the global market. Romney's energy plan isn't about promoting energy independence; it's about helping his Big Oil donors grab more cheap product and sell it on the global market for big profits.

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The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has released an analysis of how much renewable energy we could produce in each state if we really tried. According to the data, the U.S. could generate over 450,000 terawatt-hours of renewable electricity. Compare that to the 3,800 terawatt-hours of retail electricity we used in 2010. If we hooked up enough wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass systems to take advantage of just 1% of our renewable energy potential, we'd have enough green electricity to shut down every coal-fired power plant and still switch on a lot more iPads.

Here are the terawatt-hours South Dakota could get from various renewable sources, in descending order of potential:

  • rural photvoltaic: 10,009
  • wind: 2,902
  • concentrated photovoltaic: 1,630
  • enhanced geothermal: 922.0
  • biopower: 8.615
  • urban photovoltaic: 4.574
  • rooftop photovoltaic: 2.083
  • hydropower: 1.047

South Dakota's total retail electric consumption in 2010 was 11.4 terawatt-hours. In other words, if we went whole hog on the four renewable energy resources that have the least potential in South Dakota, we'd have more electricity than we could use. Alternatively (hee hee!), if we tapped just a little more than one one-thousandth of South Dakota's rural photovoltaic potential—forget wind turbines, just solar panels—we could meet all of our electricity needs.

This interactive map of renewable energy potential shows how much kind of green power is available in your county. Click and learn!

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