Going solar in ND: Incentives could spur industry growth

Jill Schramm/MDN Sheila Stafford stands next to the ground-based solar panels that provide electricity to her residence near Surrey.

Dennis Latendresse of Wind and Solar World in Upham went heavily into solar energy in 2020, doubling his installation business in 2021 and again in 2022.

“Going forward, I see the same thing. It’s mainly just people who want their own power,” he said. “They want the solar just so they don’t have to count on others.”

In areas of 50,000 population or less, which includes the city of Minot, the grants available to businesses to add solar energy have increased from a 25% grant to a 40% grant, with an additional 30% tax credit and ability to take depreciation.

“It’s kind of an amazing opportunity for folks,” Latendresse said. “If a farm or business, you are crazy not to because you have so much incentive.”

Keller Paving and Landscaping in Minot brought a solar energy system online in September 2020.

Randy Westby, controller at Keller, explained the company decided to place solar roof panels on its large building when moving its asphalt plant from Velva into Minot.

“We were already a pretty good user of electricity, and we were going to double or triple our usage. So it was a good time, we thought, to look into it,” he said.

The solar power produced is cycled into the company’s overall operation. Westby said there are no storage batteries so excess production is sold to Xcel Energy, and when solar production falls short of needs, the system seamlessly draws power from Xcel.

Westby said Keller Paving’s system was sized based on expected energy use so that solar would cover the needs most of the time. He said the system works quite well.

“It’s producing the amount of electricity it’s supposed to produce, or a little bit more,” he said.

Westby concedes solar panels are expensive, with a 15- to 20-year payback on the investment.

“But then, you have to assume the price of electricity is going to be going up also, so you’re kind of hedging the future of your costs,” he said. “The tax consequences for the businesses are a pretty strong factor in the decision. And with the current political situation, I think those credits are going to get to be more and more valuable.”

Westby said several other businesses have taken interest and inquired about Keller’s system.

“It’s not good for everybody,” he said. “You have to kind of fit into the right circumstance.”

The same might be said for homeowners.

Sheila Stafford, rural Surrey, is one homeowner who has found solar works for her.

Stafford, who has lived near Surrey for about three years, had installed a solar energy system at her rural home in Illinois about a year before moving to North Dakota.

“It just came about that a lot of neighbors were getting them,” she said. “Once one person does it and you have a little information about it, then you find it interesting. And also, Illinois offered a really good rebate program.”

At the time her North Dakota system was installed, there was a 17% tax break for homeowners.

Stafford’s solar panels are ground-based to stay away from tree shade, with the energy cabled the distance of about half a city block to the house.

Her North Dakota system differs from her former Illinois system in the current availability of storage batteries. Batteries formerly were bigger and more expensive, she said. Batteries offer a source of power when sunlight isn’t available, particularly at night.

Stafford’s system uses 12 batteries. From spring into fall, her system largely produces what she needs, feeding any excess power to Verendrye Electric Cooperative to be used as a credit against future draws on the electrical grid.

Verendrye Electric has seven accounts from which it purchases solar, said Tom Rafferty, member services and communications manager. The buybacks represent a small amount of power overall, and all the solar accounts do require power from the grid at times, he said.

He added that individuals and businesses installing solar should contact their utility companies in advance to arrange for interconnect agreements and ensure electrical codes are met. The utility, whether Verendrye or another provider, also can help the consumer calculate the payback period on a solar system, he said.

Xcel Energy, which serves Minot and some other area communities, reports it has differing rate structures related to purchasing solar power from customers, so residents should contact the company. Customers with solar systems that are less than 100 kilowatts are able to sell back the unused energy per the North Dakota tariffs. Customers with systems greater than 100 kilowatts need to be evaluated by Xcel engineers and are subject to a Power Purchase Agreement.

During the short, cloudy days of late December, Stafford was purchasing from Verendrye because solar production wasn’t enough to fill her batteries and provide for her needs at night.

Even on cloudy day, she saves money, though, Stafford said. She compared a recent $60 bill for electricity use to a $300 monthly bill when she first moved in and didn’t have the system installed yet.

“I like saving money,” Stafford said. “I’m happy not having a power bill six, seven months out of the year.”

The estimate is 15 to 20 years to get her investment back, but her reason for installing solar hasn’t been entirely about the cost savings. Stafford said she wanted a backup plan that ensures that regardless of any government action, weather event or other source of potential energy disruption, she would not be left powerless.

“It’s just security,” she said.

Latendresse said solar systems do lose some efficiency over time, but they typically carry 25- to 30-year warranties that they will operate at least at 85% efficiency. Having a south-facing roof is ideal, but an east or west roof loses only 20% in efficiency, he said.

North Dakota ranks 13th or 14th in the nation for solar quality. Latendresse said cold weather is part of the reason North Dakota ranks so well. Solar panels see declining power production above 75 degrees because the heat takes away from the power. Cloudy days can reduce the power production but even a cloudy day can typically see 30-40% efficiency, he said.

Latendresse said there is another reason besides tax credits to look at solar now as compared to in the past.

“The panels are way better and the price is lower,” he said. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, prices in North Dakota have dropped 52% in 10 years.

The manufacturing base is there and the number of companies that install the systems is growing, Latendresse said. For his company, it is now just a matter of keeping up with demand.

“I either have to get ready to grow or limit myself,” he said.

Solar in North Dakota

North Dakota ranked 51st in the country for solar installations in 2022, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The association reported there were 149 N.D. homes with solar power as of fall 2022.

Nationwide as of fall 2022, more than 3.8 million solar energy systems, with a capacity of 135.7 GW, had been installed in the United States, and 255,037 Americans were working in the solar industry, SEIA stated.

North Dakota ranks 46th in projected growth of solar, with an estimate of 508 MW over the next five years.

Assuming no loan, the average N.D. homeowner would save $18,042 over the lifetime of a solar energy system, according to EcoWatch.


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