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Framing the Argument for Renewable Energy in South Dakota

December 13, 2009

By Carrie Johnson, Yankton, SD

[reprinted from EcoForum August/September 2009]

South Dakota’s current wind energy potential remains underutilized. Despite its abundant wind potential, the state ranks a mere 19th in installed wind energy generation.

Technical challenges—such as lack of access to electrical load centers and a sufficient transmission infrastructure to absorb large-scale wind development—are partially responsible. However, we may benefit from examining what leading wind energy producing states have done to stimulate wind energy development. Observing these states reveals a strong correlation between installed wind energy capacity and ambitious renewable energy policies. Keeping this correlation in mind, it’s important for supporters of wind energy in South Dakota to ask how receptive is the South Dakota Legislature to renewable energy policy legislation and what would be the most effective approach to gain support for such policies?

While serving as a legislative fellow during the 2009 South Dakota State Legislature, I explored those questions. I developed a survey to evaluate how great a priority wind energy development was to state legislators. I also examined what factors were driving their support and whether they would be willing to enact public policy to stimulate its development. The online survey’s ten questions sought to gauge the views of legislators on a variety of topics, including economic development, climate change, and the importance of renewable energy public policy. The survey received a response rate of 80 percent from House of Representative members (56/70) and 77 percent from Senate members (27/35) over two weeks.

The survey responses showed that our legislators are very concerned about economic development in the state, but generally do not prioritize large global environmental issues, such as climate change. Arguments for renewable energy legislation that point to improving the environment and reducing carbon emissions have significantly less salience among state legislators. The results from the survey reiterate the importance of economic arguments when pushing an environmental policy agenda in South Dakota.

Supporters of wind energy must remember that economic development is the driving political force behind new progressive wind energy policies. Wind energy has wide support among legislators, with 70 percent of Senate and 87 percent of House respondents saying wind energy is either “very important” or “important” to the state’s economic development future. When asked, “How important is state policy in helping to stimulate wind energy growth in South Dakota,” 81 percent of Senate and 89 percent of House respondents answered either “very important” or “important.” These findings suggest that a majority of legislators would consider enacting renewable energy policy—and possibly other energy efficiency policies—given sufficient proof these policies would lead to economic gains.

Despite greater climate change awareness fueling demand for wind energy nationwide, many South Dakota legislators remain skeptical of the existence or severity of climate change. According to the survey, 44 percent of Senate respondents answered that they did not believe in anthropogenic climate change and 49 percent of House respondents answered that they either did “not believe climate change exists” or did not believe in anthropogenic climate change (with 7 and 11 percent in the Senate and House, respectively, answering either “I don’t know” or “no answer”). When asked about the construction of new coal-fired power plants and the effect on the environment, around half of the Senate and House respondents said they either were “not very concerned” or had “no concern.” These responses reveal the limited effectiveness that climate change-related arguments would have on our legislators.

South Dakota’s economy has much to gain from wind energy-related manufacturing and the increased tax revenue from wind energy development. Our legislators generally support wind energy, but economic arguments take priority over environmental arguments. However, for South Dakota to take the lead in wind energy, there may come a time when state leaders will need to look beyond the economic benefits and acknowledge the growing nation-wide concern for climate change that is fueling the demand for South Dakota’s wind resource.

Carrie Johnson grew up in Yankton, SD and is a summa cum laude graduate of American University in Washington, DC. Carrie is a recent USA Today Top 20 All-USA Academic All Star and a Morris K. Udall Scholar, a nationwide environmental leadership scholarship. Her senior honors capstone, “State-Level Renewable Energy Policy: The South Dakota Case Study,” was one of six to receive a university capstone award at graduation. She has presented her capstone research at conferences in Raleigh, NC; Chicago, IL; and Washington, DC.
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