The Pierre City Commission on Tuesday approved the city’s part in what they say will be the biggest solar energy project in South Dakota.

It also will be first solar project for Missouri River Energy Services, which provides 43 percent of the city’s electrical power.

The city’s part in the  project means leasing 5 acres of city land in the northwest corner of the Pierre Regional Airport to Geronimo Energy in Edina, Minn., which will install enough solar panels this summer to produce one megawatt of electricity.

The power will be distributed into Pierre’s municipal electrical system, with the potential of amounting to nearly 3 percent of the city’s electrical use of 35 megawatts, said City Administrator Leon Schochenmaier.

Geronimo, formerly known as the Rahn Group, says it has wind and solar projects operation or under developed with a total capacity of 1,500 megawatts.

The City Commission acted fast on the solar farm project, which hasn’t been broached publicly by Pierre city leaders before.

After an explanation by Utilities Director Brad Palmer and some discussion, the Commission quickly voted 5-0 three times authorizing Mayor Laurie Gill to sign three agreements with Geronimo Energy and/or MRES for leasing the land and providing for the power to be connected into the city’s grid provided by MRES.

Palmer said the city gets 57 percent of its electricity from the Western Area Power Administration, which won’t be a part of this demonstration solar project.

MRES, out of Sioux Falls, provides 43 percent of the city’s electrical power.

So, to the mix of hydroelectric, coal, natural gas, wind and even a little nuclear-generated power, Pierre now will get some solar-panel-produced electricity in the municipal utility, Palmer said.

The panels will “follow the sun,” each day with motor-driven tilting and articulating, Palmer said.

The panels are pretty impervious to wind, hail and even snow, partly because “most of our snow is horizontal,” said Schochenmaier.

Palmer showed a photo of a similar but larger solar farm at the Indianapolis airport, saying the project here will be “kind of a feather in our cap.”

Geronimo apparently has been quite confident Pierre’s City Commission would approve it, and had some time ago posted a page on its website touting the “Pierre Solar Project,” with a special logo, as one of the projects already on  the company’s drawing board.

Geronimo describes it as “an up to 1 megawatt (MW) capacity project located in Hughes County, South Dakota. Pierre will utilize a fixed-tilt photovoltaic solar array and will bring energy to the grid efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Geronimo says its “Pierre Solar” project, a $2 million investment, will take up to 10 acres, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 900 metric tons a year, and will be constructed and operating in 2016.

It appears there was a hurry to get the Commission’s approval Tuesday to get the project moving.

“We will overnight the agreements to Geronimo,” Palmer said.

Once the Edina company sees an inked deal, it will start ordering solar panels, start work at the site in July and have the solar farm putting out watts in October, Palmer said.

MRES, meanwhile, plans to announce the project Wednesday, as soon as it hears of Pierre’s votes, Palmer said.

Asked after the meeting, Schochenmaier and Gill said there had been no “rush” to get the project going.

Geronimo will be responsible for maintaining the solar farm, including mowing the grass, Palmer said.

Geronimo has tried before to build a solar farm in South Dakota without such quick success.

In February 2015, Geronimo sought a permit to build a $25 million “solar farm,” near Sioux Falls, that would cover 100 acres.

But city and county leaders – at a joint meeting -  and residents gave the idea a thumbs down, saying they were worried about the project’s effect on other developments so close to the city.

And some questioned if Geronimo knew how to do it because it had experience only with small solar set-ups for a large furniture manufacturer.  The permit request was denied, KDLT-TV reported.

Geronimo still is working on a 60-acre solar farm near Little Falls in central Minnesota, for which it got approval in 2014.

Morrison County leaders began drafting a new solar energy ordinance because of the project and concerns about how to zone for such uses. Geronimo says the project still is in the development stage.

Geronimo has developed two other solar projects underway in Minnesota but turned them over to Enel Green Power North America. Those, like the Pierre plan, are called “utility-scale distributed solar generation,” in their case near Xcel Energy substations, according to news reports. Like Pierre, the solar energy is generated next to a utility power grid that is easy to hook into.

The project will cost the city of Pierre nothing, Schochenmaeier said. The per-acre rent for the land, while a modest amount, will go from about $20 an acre paid by a farmer using it for hay to $57 an acre next year.

The hay producer hadn’t been told yet about the solar farm project, Schochenmaier said. But the same man leases many acres at the airport and won’t have a problem with the plan, he said.

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