Regulators approve early start for South Dakota’s largest solar farm

March 13, 2024

Johsua Haiar (SD Searchlight)

Utility regulators took actions Tuesday that will allow a solar energy project to start producing electricity ahead of schedule at the largest solar farm in the state.

Wild Springs Solar’s $190 million project sprawls across areas totaling 1,499 acres — about 2 square miles — of ranchland in Pennington County, just south of New Underwood. The project was built by National Grid Renewables, of Bloomington, Minnesota.

The project’s construction phase may conclude ahead of schedule. So, the company requested a change to its permit conditions that will allow it to start operations as soon as this Friday rather than the previously anticipated date of May 1.

The state Public Utilities Commission required the solar farm to post a surety bond to make sure there is enough money to safely remove the solar panels and clean up the site when the solar farm is no longer used. The initial bond amounts were $2.5 million and then $3 million. The new surety bond amount is $4.14 million.

The changes in the bond amount reflect changing estimates of the future decommissioning costs. The changing cost estimates are due to the fluctuating value of scrap steel. If the solar farm is shut down, some of the steel could be sold for scrap to offset the cost of decommissioning the project.

“The price of HMS (scrap steel) in August 2022 was $505 whereas it is now $325 in January 2024,” the company wrote. An attorney for the company, Mollie Smith, said that was partly due to high demand as supply chain problems arose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things were in high demand and it was difficult to get them,” Smith told the commission.

Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which is headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota, and serves numerous rural electric cooperatives across the region, will purchase the solar farm’s electricity. The project can produce up to 128 megawatts of electricity. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, South Dakota had only 102 megawatts of capacity from other solar projects at the end of last year, ranking 47th in the nation. Those 102 megawatts were enough to power about 12,000 homes.

Between projects like Wild Springs and the 80-megawatt Fall River Solar project, solar electricity generation in South Dakota is expected to rise by 328 megawatts in the next five years. Fall River Solar is a 500-acre solar farm in Fall River County near Oelrichs.