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South Dakota’s wind farm boom likely at end of its tailwind, say state officials

PIERRE, S.D. – The wind farm tsunami generating record one-time money for the state legislature this past cycle may’ve been a circumstantial fluke.

“In 2018, we permitted three wind farms. In 2019, six wind farms. In 2020, one wind farm,” Chris Nelson, chair of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, told Forum News Service on Tuesday, April 13. “And we have got none on our plate right now.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the South Dakota PUC approved an extension on a post-construction report for a 56-turbine wind farm commissioned this last January in Deuel County, in the state’s northeastern corner where wind farms are increasingly ripe.

“Tatanka has been a project that has limited concerns, and they’ve done a nice job of building their wind development,” said PUC vice chair Kristie Fiegen.

It also is increasingly what the PUC will be seeing, say observers: windfarm petitions in the rearview mirror.

According to Nelson and others, it’s increasingly likely the juggernaut wind program of 2020, including 8 projects that brought $2.3 billion in investment and needed dollars to the state’s coffers through contractor’s excise taxes in the pandemic-stricken months of last summer, will fade as conditions fade.

“While we expect alternative energy to continue in South Dakota, this large increase in wind farms is not going to be where that comes from,” state economist Mark Quasney told the Joint Appropriations Committee on the first legislative day this past January.

On Tuesday, Quasney told FNS his prediction is bearing out.

“There’s not the projects in the pipeline,” said Quasney. “So what we’re seeing is we’re at the tail-end of that boom.”

South Dakota has played catch-up in wind farms over the last few years, as a federal tax incentive stabilized for developers, regional wind companies grouped together to market energy to portfolios, and private companies expanded transmission capacity.

And this last year those dollars bore fruit. Quasney credited wind farm development – and federal COVID-relief dollars – with “a surge in collections” propping up the recently concluded legislative session that saw lawmakers spend big on infrastructure items ranging from a $19 million new rodeo center in Huron to a $20 million upgrade to the railroad from Ft. Pierre to Rapid City to tens of millions on expanding broadband.

The growth of wind has come with less-than-vocal approval from the state’s elected leadership. The Republican supermajority legislature passed on party lines a resolution that threw glancing shade at “politically favored industries” at the expense of “domestic fossil fuels.”

Weeks ago, Yale Climate Connections listed South Dakota as one of the Great Plains states with “abundant wind potential” but with a “relatively small number of wind jobs,” drawing on a U.S. State Energy and Employment report to find wind farms in South Dakota only employ a third as many workers (0.5 per TWh) as the 1.5 workers per TWh (Terawatt-hour) in Minnesota.

Still, wind had been leaping ahead in the state until this year. In March, American Wind Energy Association’s latest quarterly report named South Dakota as one of the top 6 states in the nation for accelerating wind farm installations.

Last month, a Bill Gates-backed initiative applauded Boston University for building a 92-turbine wind farm outside Highmore, S.D., to help the private college attain a zero-net emissions campaign across the campus.

Nelson also credits Google and Walmart, corporate giants, as well as other deep-pocketed institutions looking to invest in “green power” for their portfolios.

“Of the 127 projects in the dirtiest grids in the country, the project in South Dakota maximized our criteria and will displace two to three times more emissions than if the same project were located in our greening New England grid,” Dennis Carlberg, the college’s associate vice president for sustainability, told a campus publication.

In Deuel County, Tatanka Ridge Wind Farm now has more time to begin cleaning up its project after the PUC approved the extension.

“There are issues with access roads and with the county, township roads that can’t be resolved until the frost laws are resolved for the year,” Brett Koenecke, attorney for Tatanka Ridge, told the commission.