Solar may be making news in many states, but not in North Dakota — home to the Bakken formation and 10,000 wells pumping oil and natural gas. Yet that's where I headed recently to talk to a group of electric co-op utilities about opportunities in solar.
Bakken and the state’s energy boom have turned North Dakota into one of the nation’s economic bright spots. The state now has the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a budget surplus in excess of $1 billion.
So drumming up interest in solar would appear to be a tough sell. But as Dennis Hill, president of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives noted when he introduced me, the people in the room were well aware of what is happening outside the state's borders.
"It seems that every time we open an industry newsletter, half of the headlines are about solar," Hill said. "So we want to know what's really going on in the solar market."
Somewhat ironically, the interest in solar is related to the oil boom, which has triggered a booming need for electricity. The tiny rural co-ops bringing power to the oil fields have seen their demand for electricity grow five-fold in as many years.
Is there a role for solar in meeting this demand? North Dakota has a good solar resource, with generally sunny weather and long summer days. Solar irradiance — a measure of the intensity of sunlight in a given area — is better here than in southern cities such as Jacksonville or Houston.
That solar can be a competitive option to fossil fuels is an idea slowly taking root. The Verendrye Electric Co-op, which serves on the edge of the oil patch, uses solar to power almost 300 livestock water wells, providing significant savings over engine-driven generators in areas without readily available power lines.
Still, oil at $100 a barrel pays for a lot of power lines in the Bakken. North Dakota has plentiful electricity supplies, much of it from coal. But renewable energy has gained credibility. More than 14 percent of the state's power comes from wind, which has helped North Dakota lower its per kilowatt-hour carbon intensity over the past decade. With some North Dakota co-ops getting more than 20 percent of their power from wind, a path forward has been opened for solar.
At my meeting, discussions on solar took up two of the three hours of a "technology update." The third hour was about the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at power plants, and solar ranked high as an option for North Dakota as a way to cut emissions in the future.
Two co-ops are about to build small community solar projects to test out whether even in North Dakota, people want solar.
Skepticism persists. One attendee asked me, "Isn't the falling price of solar only due to tax credits? What would the 'real' price of solar be if you take those credits away?" I pointed out that a co-op in New Mexico is financing a megawatt of solar at close to eight cents per kilowatt-hour without the use of any tax credits, an example that eased some of the doubts.
What is important to remember is that while North Dakota is now the nation's No. 2 state in oil production, five short years ago oil was better known in the state for its busts than its booms. It took decades of drilling dry wells before North Dakota's first working oil well was sunk in 1951, and the industry has been up and down ever since.
Solar may never soar on a Bakken-like boom, but it will steadily find its place as a piece of the state’s electricity solution.