Sen. Thune believes in wind energy

Jason Mann

Jason Mann

“South Dakota has the potential to become the Saudi Arabia of wind,” says South Dakota U.S. Sen. John Thune.

With the recent dedication of the MinnDakota Wind Power Project, wind has been a hot topic in South Dakota. The state ranks as the fourth windiest state in the country, according to the American Wind Energy Association, and investors are looking at building more wind farms in the state. Most are from foreign countries, like Spain, but Thune wants to see more domestic companies invest in South Dakota.

“I would like to see more of these projects owned locally, but either way we get more jobs and other benefits,” says Thune.

He believes the way to generate more interest from American companies is to extend the federal production tax credit. On average, it generates two cents in tax credit for every kilowatt generated, but the credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2008. According to Thune, the wind farm industry expanded by 45 percent in 2007 because of the tax credit.

“I think we’re going to be losing a lot of projects if this tax credit isn’t extended,” says Thune.

One of the biggest barriers to building wind farms is the lack of transmission lines leaving the state. Thune says he has suggested the creation of a type of interstate highway system for wind energy transportation. Because it costs approximately $1 million to build one mile of transmission lines, Thune wants to create a cost recovery program for investors in order to expedite the process. It had been attached to legislation and was passed in the Senate, but the “clean energy corridor” amendment was removed in the House.

Within South Dakota, there are some opponents to building wind farms. Some of them argued during the 2008 South Dakota Legislative session that turbines take away from the aesthetic beauty of the prairies that cover the state. Thune says that while there will always be some parts of South Dakota that refuse to allow turbines to be built, most of the state will likely be accepting of wind farms because the actual turbine only takes up two percent of the land that energy companies lease from landowners.

“You always have to do this in accordance with local support,” Thune says. “There are thousands upon thousands of acres with nothing in South Dakota where turbines would fit perfectly.”

Thune says wind is not the only answer, though; with gas prices continuing to climb to record levels, he says it is time to “lessen our dependence on foreign oil.” He believes SDSU could play a big part in making the state a leader in alternative energy.

“I think the university is well positioned because of its mission and how these concerns fit in this mission,” says Thune. “I expect they’ll continue to be at the foundation of this debate, the research and the technology.”

SDSU is a Sun Grant institution, which means the university is one of five land-grant universities charged with the task of creating new, efficient biofuels. The ethanol industry is growing, but researchers have recently charged the corn-based fuel as being inefficient. Thune believes switchgrass is another type of energy source South Dakota can become a leader in producing. According to a study done at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, switchgrass produced 540 percent more energy than it took to grow, harvest and process into cellulosic ethanol. Thune believes switchgrass could easily be grown in South Dakota, especially in West River. He also believes South Dakota has many areas-those “thousands of acres of nothing”-where solar panels could be built and efficiently produce energy.

“There are some things we can’t do here, but there are some we can do very well, and I can’t think of a field more ripe than renewable energy,” Thune says.