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South Dakotans Making Solar Power Work

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: 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.


  1. John 2013.06.27

    Outstanding analysis and article, Corey; many, many thanks. The 100-year old business model of the utilities is dead. Distributed energy is the future. Those of us lacking a good southern exposure can opt to use the largest solar sink - geothermal, which covers heating and air conditioning.

    South Dakota earns a D- minus in economic development ingenuity because the legislature and regulatory bodies like the PUC are captured by the very corporations they are supposed to protect the people from.

    Tap into page 7 of Grantham's Quarterly Newsletter to begin comprehending how the utilities need to decide whether they are energy companies or (mostly dead) fuel companies. Mind you that Mr. Grantham manages $110 billion so its a fair chance he know of what he writes.

  2. Les 2013.06.27

    Protect us from the utilities John? It is a much finer line they(PUC) walk than that. Cut the power and Telco to your house in the morning and tell me how protected you feel. They also work to ensure reliable service which requires profits. For every coal fired plant coming offline a new nat gas plant is coming online which we pay for on top of the power costs. Let's see, depression in 08 so we fight four years over greenhouse gases and affordable health care. I think protection is needed elsewhere.-
    This is a good article, however I see no analysis showing me any payback on a $10-20-30,000 system to do what the story tells. We need renewable but lets not bankrupt the US getting it done this year. An analysis I'd like to see is a timeline to get it done, cost basis and recovery along with wheeling and metering agreements that compensate the utilities for using their plant.

  3. Douglas Wiken 2013.06.28

    Let's not bankrupt the US and convert the planet Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland by subsidizing fossil fuels.

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