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Turning the EV dream into reality in the Upper Midwest

Combine solar panels with an electric car and driving gets less expensive. The numbers are still low the region but new infrastructure and incentives making it more attractive.

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Mike and Paula Wagner of Lake Brandt, South Dakota, with their Ford Mustang Mach E4x at an electric car show in Sioux Falls in 2021.
Patrick Lalley / Forum News Service
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — With a solar panel and an electric car, driving around town should cost next to nothing.

The electrification of cars, motorcycles and all manner of transportation opens a world of possibilities. But every dream has a reality, and in the Upper Midwest the realities are often a bit harsher than we’d like.

Yes, the cold weather is one. More to the point, however, are the behind-the-scenes and often more tedious challenges of regulation, infrastructure and management. The age of electric transportation is coming to a Midwestern city near you, just not as quick as say, California.

And maybe that’s just fine, say advocates and power suppliers.

“We do wish the (charging network) was better developed, but it will come,” said Mike Wagner, who lives with his wife Paula on Lake Brandt, about 30 miles northwest of Sioux Falls. Their red Ford Mustang E4x has four-wheel drive, a range of 250 miles per charge and goes from zero to 60 mph in about 3 seconds.

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“I like having size and power underneath me,” Wagner said. “After you drive an electric car you almost feel vulnerable in a gas-powered car. I can get out of the way a lot quicker.”

The Go Electric EV Ride and Drive and Electric Vehicle Show will give the curious a chance to see the vehicles up close and go for a test drive. The event is 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at the W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls. A number of regional power providers and the city of Sioux Falls are hosting the event, which will also include bikes, motorcycles and other devices.

Several utilities and the city of Sioux Falls is hosting event on Sept. 29 at W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds. The event will include an array of car models as well as bikes, motorcycles and lawncare equipment.

The United States is barreling toward a greener future with long-range goals of net-zero emissions. A portion of that equation is drastically reducing emissions from gas-powered vehicles. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year provides states money to build out the network of charging stations.

South Dakota will receive about $29 million over the next five years. North Dakota will get nearly $26 million and Minnesota will receive $68 million.

That investment will significantly increase the ability to travel across the states — and the country — on the interstate highway system. That’s the macro picture.

But what about the day-to-day experience of your average commuter?

Considering that few people drive more than 50 miles a day, if that, the idea of plugging in your car each night and waking up with a full tank (charge) is alluring. Which hearkens back to the idea of making and using your own electricity.

Cost to consumers, utilities

The cost of home solar is decreasing. Combined with tax credits, it’s become a real option if you’re willing to make the initial investment.

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Net metering, which requires a public utility or cooperative to buy back excess electricity, makes the financial side a little better for consumers.

South Dakota doesn’t have net metering, rather residents can sell the energy back at what’s called the “avoided cost.” That fluctuates a little but it’s usually around 20 to 30% of what you pay for the energy.

In North Dakota and Minnesota, a homeowner can get credits for what they put back into the grid at the retail price of the power.

Chris Nelson
Chris Nelson

South Dakota isn’t likely to change that policy anytime soon, said Chris Nelson, one of the three members of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

“The PUC has a long-standing position opposing the idea of net metering,” Nelson said.

That’s because it costs utilities money to produce the electricity. If they have to buy it back at the same price they provide it, they are losing money. Those costs are eventually going to be paid by their customers that don’t use net metering, Nelson said.

That doesn’t mean, as a South Dakotan, you’ll get nothing and like it.

Avoided costs take into consideration what the utility doesn’t have to pay for when the power comes back into the grid. It’s less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour right now, compared to the 12 cents average paid across South Dakota, though that can vary depending on provider and circumstances.

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The value in solar

The PUC isn’t opposed to solar energy, Nelson said. In fact, he believes that as technology continues to advance, it will become a larger part of the energy equation. The commission has approved two large-scale solar operations in the state, though neither has begun construction.

For consumers, solar panels on a house are possible, as long as it makes economic sense, he said. The key is to build a system that meets your needs and doesn’t produce a lot of electricity that you don’t use.

“Don’t oversize your system thinking you are going to make money selling back to the utility company,” he said.

Patrick Hicks didn’t put solar panels on his house for financial reasons.

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Patrick Hicks, professor of English and writer in residence at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Contributed

“We decided to go forward with this because we wanted to model the kind of change we wanted to see in the larger society,” said Hicks, a professor of English and the writer in residence at Augustana University.

Their solar array cost about $10,000 in 2018, after a tax break from the federal government covered another $5,000.

The 5 megawatt array is enough to run the entire house when the sun is out in the summer, including the air conditioner. Still, it’s not saving Hicks and his wife Tania much money. It would make more economic sense, and more people would consider solar in South Dakota, if the state were to implement net metering like its neighbors, he said.

“I put the responsibility for that squarely on the state government,” he said.

Sioux Valley Energy serves about 27,000 customers in southeast South Dakota. The member-owned cooperative provides advice and assistance for customers who want to reduce their carbon footprint, said Ben Pierson, the manager of beneficial electrification.

That includes solar panels. But he points out that it’s easier and less expensive to work with the coop, which already gets 40% of its energy from renewable sources.

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Ben Pierson, manager of beneficial electrification for Sioux Valley Energy, based in Colman, S.D.<br/><br/>
Contributed

“It is more expensive,” he said of installing solar yourself. “Just because our rates are so low that when you compare to doing solar on your own, it’s usually not very cost effective.”

That’s not to say Sioux Valley discourages members who want to go green.

Members can opt in to buy a greater percentage of their power from renewables, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar. The cooperative is also building their own solar arrays and has a program for electric vehicle owners that allows them to pay a considerably lower price if they charge up between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The nighttime rate is equivalent to paying about 45 cents a gallon for gas.

Slow to embrace electric vehicles

The Upper Midwest has been slow to embrace the EV trend.

There are more than 1,400 electric vehicles registered in South Dakota, according to the state’s department of transportation. It’s lower in North Dakota, with just over 750 electric passenger vehicles.

Minnesota had nearly 7,000 plug-in vehicles in 2018.

The EV wave is expected to grow across the country in the next several years, though at a lesser rate in the Upper Midwest.

The shortcomings of the network notwithstanding, Wagner, the Mustang owner, said he’s disappointed that electric vehicles have become a political straw man.

The claims on social media and elsewhere, and the vitriol that accompanies it, suggest it’s impossible to have an EV in S.D.

That’s hardly the truth, but it’s likely to hurt the move toward electric in the state, he said.

“I think the political rhetoric has slowed down the conversation,” said Wagner, a Sioux Valley customer who takes advantage of the night time charging rate. “That’s unfortunate.”

In the meantime, Wagner said his costs haven’t been affected by the Russian invasion in Ukraine or other worldwide disturbances in the oil supply.

“My car gets filled up every night.”

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:
Joe Kirby led the move to home rule for Sioux Falls three decades ago. As the metro changes, how must government adapt? What do you think?

Related Topics: SIOUX FALLS
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for the Forum News Service in Sioux Falls. Reach him at plalley@forumcomm.com.
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