The Dakotas: America’s Next Renewable Heartland?

Posted February 23, 2018

By Isaac Serratos

The election of Donald J. Trump ushered in the end of the “War on Coal.” Since coming into office, his administration has taken active steps to limit the country’s natural progression towards renewable energy. His decision to pull the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, has stalled the federal government’s pressure to push a national renewable agenda. The absence of a top-down approach has now transferred greater responsibility to individual states to lower emissions.

Many states have already adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) to help move themselves toward lowering carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy output. These standards, which vary widely in aggressiveness and legal enforceability, require the production of set percentages of energy from renewable energy resources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. They aren’t just for show, either. More than half of all growth in renewable electricity generation (60%) and capacity (57% since 2000) is attributable to state RPS requirements (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 2016), and with a recent success rate of 95% (LBNL, 2016).

"Yet some states with high renewable energy potentials, such as the Dakotas, still have not seriously considered adopting an aggressive RPS despite the significant economic, environmental, and social justice benefits one would bring."

Each state and region of the country has at least one type of renewable energy that best suits its natural resources and features. In sunny states, photovoltaic energy collection may be the be most effective, while for windy states, wind generation may be the more attractive option. Despite the interior of the country having access to large amounts of renewable energy in the form of wind, geothermal, or biomass, without an RPS initiative, this region’s transition away from fossil fuels has been stymied by state politics.

North and South Dakota have an especially large potential capacity to generate wind energy. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, North Dakota has a potential capacity to generate 296,083 MW of electricity through wind, although they have currently only have 2,996 MW of installed capacity (NREL Annual Technology Baseline, 2017). The massive difference creates a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on one of this state’s most underutilized resources, and positions the state to become a national exporter of renewable energy. Grid infrastructure in North Dakota already exists to export electricity directly to nearby states and across the country.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that wind projects have county-level annual earnings of $5,000 to $43,000 per MW of installed wind capacity, varying largely on whether it is locally owned (Department of Energy, 2012). Wind generation helps local economies not only through job creation, but also through lease agreements, royalties, or other right of way permits to local landowners.

An ambitious RPS has the ability to further spur a state’s share in the United States’ growing $44 billion market for renewable energy sources (Durkay, 2017). Hawaii has set the most aggressive RPS requirement, mandating that it reach 40% renewable electricity generation by 2030, and 100% by 2045 (National Conference of State Legislature, 2017).

Hawaii passed House Bill 623 in 2015, stating that, “The legislature finds that Hawaii’s dependency on imported fuel drains the State’s economy of billions of dollars each year. A stronger local economy depends on a transition away from imported fuels and towards renewable local resources that provide a secure source of affordable energy” (Relating to Renewable Standards, HB623 CD1, 2015).

The Aloha State has chosen a proactive approach towards reaching energy independence, boosting its local economy, and minimizing its carbon footprint. Hawaii’s isolated geographic location contributed to making it the most petroleum-dependent state in the country, spending a tenth of the state’s GDP on energy (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2017). Despite Hawaii’s reliance on imported oil, it was able to aggressively pursue renewable energy and significantly cut the state’s long-term costs.

A more robust RPS would also help lower South Dakota’s reliance on the Missouri River, which often provides inadequate levels of hydropower during dry years. The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) is a regional agency that buys and sells electricity — mostly from hydropower — to municipalities, rural customers, and Native American tribes for a flat rate to avoid price hikes to its users. A lack of hydropower to comply with customer contracts led WAPA to purchase $28.3 million of electricity on the open market last year (MacPherson, 2018). WAPA has used more than $1.7 billion since 2000 to comply with customer contracts, mainly due to drought years that lowered possible hydro generation along the Missouri River (MacPherson, 2018).

"As seen through the experiences of other states, renewable energy will benefit the Dakotas both economically and environmentally."

They will no longer have to sacrifice the health of their citizens or ecosystems for the generation of electricity through fossil fuels. With a lower reliance on the hydroelectric generation, a dry year would not affect residents, while allowing the river to flow more freely.

The Dakotas — North Dakota in particular — have relied upon the boom-and-bust cycles of the fossil fuel industry for long enough. The adoption of robust RPSs would be a huge step forward in tapping these states’ tremendous wind energy potential, bringing stable, skilled jobs and economic benefits to the entire region. Through this, North and South Dakota have the opportunity to become the new heartland of American renewables.

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