Part of this story is in the numbers. Today, windmills in South Dakota generate 44 megawatts of power. Compare that to Minnesota, the giant of wind power in the upper Midwest. Minnesota cranks out 895 megawatts of wind energy.
That sounds like a lot, right? Wrong. Brad Barton, Director of Commercialization & Deployment for the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates South Dakota's potential wind generation at 566,000 megawatts.
"So we're not even scratching the surface," says Barton. "There's just so much potential and opportunity here."
Barton says wind energy creates economic and environmental benefits. Barton made the comments at a recent wind summit in Sioux Falls hosted by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Barton says renewable fuels like wind reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Economically, Barton says there is a return for investors, payments to landowners and new manufacturing jobs. He says parts for wind turbines are tough to import.
"It's good for everyday folks because it creates real manufacturing jobs and those are just only going to grow. This is not something that's going to be made in China these blades are 60 to 70 meters long and hard to transport. You're going to build them right here in South Dakota," says Barton.
But before any of this growth in wind production can happen, Barton says South Dakota needs to create policies that are favorable to renewable fuels.
For example, South Dakota does not have a renewable fuel standard policy. That's the way some states require that a certain percentage of all energy used in a state must come from renewable resources.
Barton says that's the easy part of generating wind production. The tricky part is figuring out how to transport the energy. Barton says states are responsible for distributing power and that means they bear the cost of building the transmission lines, a cost many states want to share with power companies.
At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, Brian Parsonswatches how the regional power grids operate and intersect. He says it costs billions of dollars to build new transmission lines.
"But on a relative basis compared to the rest of the electric power market and what the costs are, it's not a big fraction of it. It's really not an expensive part of it," says Parsons. "But it's difficult, it's expensive and you have to figure out who is going to pay for it."
Parsons says the economic development benefits exceed the cost for new lines. But it'll take cooperation among the states.
Transmission lines in South Dakota are at capacity and there isn't room for growth. But there is a plan to upgrade transmission lines from South Dakota border communities through Minnesota. It's a way to get wind energy from South Dakota to Minneapolis and Chicago. Lloyd Linke, Power Systems Operations Manager for for Western Area Power, says because of the way the load system works, sometimes power is routed through Canada.
"Power likes to take the path of least resistance, which isn't always the direct path," he says. "Even taking energy out of South Dakota moving it towards Minneapolis and Chicago you can hit on the Manitoba hydro export along the Canadian border or several other constrained paths as we try to bring energy out of South Dakota to the load areas of Minneapolis and Chicago."
That kind of roundabout way of transmitting energy is expensive. North and South Dakota are in a different transmission region than Minneapolis and Chicago. That means a tariff on energy is doubled or sometimes tripled before it gets to its final destination. Experts say unless that challenge is met somehow, the transmission price itself can price the Dakotas right out of the wind market.