Workers install the ‘perlins,’ or the horizontal crossbars, that go over the racks. The solar panels will be installed over the perlins, and that work could start as early as this week.  (Lee Zion/Capital Journal)

Work has begun on a new solar energy farm at the Pierre Regional Airport. 

The project, approved by the City Commission in May, is expected to be the biggest solar energy project in South Dakota and sort of pilot project for ramping up solar power in the region.

The project is visible from North Airport Road, near the rural fire station. There will be 11 rows of solar panels, each 500 feet long, and another two shorter rows of 400 feet.

The whole project will generate 1 megawatt of power, or just about 3 percent of Pierre’s needs, said Leon Schochenmaier, city administrator.

Construction began earlier this month on the project that includes the panels, the framework holding them in place, the wires to connect them, and a transformer, Schochenmaier said.

The whole project could be complete and delivering power by the end of the September, Schochenmaier said.

“That will be hooked directly into the city’s electrical system.” he said.

This is the first solar project for Missouri River Energy Services, out of Sioux Falls, which provides about 40 percent of the city’s wholesale electrical power. The project is funded entirely by MRES, he said.

Solar panels generate electricity only when the sun is shining. But the array can provide energy during times of peak power demand in the summer.

MRES approached the city with the idea. They studied three communities — Pierre, Vermillion and Dennison, Iowa — and decided that Pierre was the most suitable. When MRES asked what would be the best place to site the project, the city selected the airport, Schochenmaier said.

Dwight Jelle, with Best Power International, said his company is working with MRES, Geronimo Energy, and the city of Pierre, said the array, at 1 megawatt, will produce 1,930 megawatt-hours of energy every year. Best Power will operate the facility.

A megawatt is the amount of power, while a megawatt-hour, as the name implies, is how much power is generated over time. One megawatt, generated over an hour, equals one megawatt-hour, he said.

Jelle added that 1,930 megawatt-hours is roughly the amount of energy used by 200 homes, 24 hours a day, for a full year.

Providing that energy through solar instead of fossil fuels will remove about 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide from the air a year — the pollution equivalent of 3 million miles driven in the average passenger vehicle, Jelle said.

This is MRES’s first solar project, and the largest solar project in South Dakota, he said.

Jelle added that the airport land was set aside as a safety zone, and the land could not be used for anything else — except a project like this.

“It’s an excellent location. It’s an excellent site for solar energy. It slopes down to the south, and it’s wide open. There’s no shading involved with any parts of the facility,” he said.

Jelle said the University of South Dakota will conduct a study on Pierre’s solar array to determine how much energy is produced, and how the benefit the project is to the community.

“It’s a great opportunity. The city of Pierre is excited about it. We’re obviously excited to get it built,” he said.

Tim Griffin, vice president of construction for Fagen Inc., said the project will occupy about 10 acres of land. Each panel is 39 inches by 77 inches. There are 4,280 panels total, so that’s about 89,256 square feet of panels. That works out to slightly more than 2 acres, not counting the space between the rows, he said.

Each of those 4,280 panels can generate up to 315 watts of energy, Griffin said.

This is Griffin’s first solar power array. He is working on another project in the area — the ethanol plant in Onida — and was asked to help this project because he was already in the area.

Fagen has built about two-thirds of the ethanol plants nationwide. It is the largest green energy contractor in the United States, Griffith said.

Griffith says solar is a growing industry, and he’s bullish on alternative energy.

“We bet our business on it. That is our business — green energy.”

Staff writer Stephen Lee contributed to this report.

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