North Dakota's overshadowed solar industry imagines a different future
In North Dakota’s “all of the above” energy philosophy, solar is a virtually untapped resource. But the state's champions of solar are quick to say that they prefer their humble model, hoping to foster small, community-based solar power that would stand in contrast to the hundreds of megawatt wind farms that dot North Dakota.
MANDAREE, N.D. — On the roof of a yellow house near the western edge of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Coulee Luger drilled the last of 20 solar panels into place. The hills surrounding him obscured nodding pumpjacks, scattered flares and a handful of workover rigs — the markers of North Dakota oil country.
“People think it’s either, or,” said Luger, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Since an oil boom transformed his reservation more than a decade ago, renewable energy, favored in many of the sustainability-oriented Native American communities around the state, has often seemed at odds with the fossil fuel development that has lifted the coffers of his tribe. “It’s polarized,” he said.
Since graduating high school, Luger, now 30, has worked various jobs in the North Dakota oil fields, on the production side, pumping oil, as well as on drilling rigs, exploring for untapped reservoirs. But after the bottom fell out of the industry at the start of the pandemic, Luger and the oilfield company he now works for, Native Brother Services, made a surprising pivot for businessmen headquartered in the heart of the Bakken: They’re going to solar.
Though Native Brother Services is still open and equipped for oilfield work, company owner Esley Thorton Jr. said they’re “making some hay” with these solar gigs. Jobs are booked into October. Multiple offers come in every week, to the point where the company’s five-man staff is having to turn some of them down. Thorton and Luger are in conversations with the MHA government about outfitting solar panels on many of the tribally-owned buildings in the reservation capital of New Town this fall.
But Native Brother Services is a rare outfit, not just for the Bakken, but across North Dakota. In the state’s “all of the above” energy philosophy, solar is a virtually untapped resource. Oil is titanic, the state’s calling card and largest revenue stream. Coal may no longer be king, but it has maintained steadfast favor in Bismarck, where lawmakers this session earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and loan programs for the industry . And though renewable energy advocates note that North Dakota has yet to fully capitalize on its abundant wind supply, the wind industry has built up thousands of megawatts of capacity here in the last two decades, generating more than 30% of the state’s electricity output in 2020 .
Meanwhile, when it comes to solar, North Dakota ranks dead last in the country . Its 1.1 megawatts of solar capacity don’t even register on the state’s energy profile (by comparison, next-door Minnesota has 1,602 megawatts of solar deployed, and nation-leading California has 31,872 megawatts, according to data supplied by the industry group Solaria). The state doesn’t have a single utility-grade solar array, and existing projects are limited to modest, kilowatt-level rooftop installations on the tops of some businesses and the homes of scattered, green-minded North Dakotans.
But workers in North Dakota’s grassroots solar sector are quick to say they prefer this humble model. They hope to keep it.
“I like the whole situation of this green thing,” said Thorton, marveling at the success of his company’s quick turn from oil to solar. “If we can give back and keep our resources abundant, we can do really well in life.”
'The flannel shirt crowd'
Despite North Dakota’s reputation as a leading extractor of oil and coal, the state has also carved out a national standing for its renewable energy production — namely, wind power. Sometimes called “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” North Dakota ranks seventh nationally for electricity generated by its turbines.
The economics of wind power skew towards large scale generation farms, sometimes requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to get off the ground. When it comes to solar, lesser overhead and plummeting costs in recent years have made smaller projects, like the arrays decorating the roofs of some homes, more feasible. Though some places, particularly in the sun-soaked southwestern United States, have seen their solar industries explode with thousands of acre farms, the horizons for the resource in North Dakota have so far been lower.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, one of three Republicans who regulate utilities on the state’s Public Service Commission, noted that anyone trying to expand the generation of a resource in North Dakota faces an uphill battle because of the limited space available on transmission lines.
But if many people start taking advantage of cheap, rooftop solar, Fedorchak noted that it could pose new challenges to the complicated puzzle of regulating the North Dakota power grid.
“I’m sure once this stuff is widely available, everybody is going to be using it,” she said. “But who knows. Is that five years, 10 years from now? Three years from now? It’s so hard to say.”
Wind and solar are often promoted together by environmentalists around the country, but, in North Dakota, their interests have hardly aligned — a lesson one solar advocate picked up quickly when he took to the capitol this legislative session to lobby against the hundreds of millions of dollars in relief lawmakers were looking to set aside for coal companies.
Arguments from Ryan Warner, a co-founder of the Bismarck-based Lightspring, one of a handful of locally-based solar development companies, found little traction with the Legislature’s Republican-dominated committees, more often drawing brusque responses from lawmakers. Warner recalled his early surprise that wind representatives weren’t there to back him up, only realizing later that their more influential lobbyists were doing their negotiating behind closed doors.
"They already got what they wanted," he observed. "So why would they be here?"
For years, the contrast between these two renewable sectors in North Dakota has been stark. Big investment and companies with national footprints characterize the wind industry. Its promoters tend to keep publicly quiet, preferring not to ruffle feathers in a state where their success also signals a threat to weakened coal companies.
Solar, on the other hand, has been championed by a less influential cast of characters, whose business models hew more to environmental and community principles than bottom lines. Warner, a self-described “very reluctant businessman,” and Lightspring have championed an unorthodox growth strategy, partnering with other small businesses and communities around the state to teach the ropes of solar installation. Instead of hundreds of megawatt farms shipping power out of state as is the case with North Dakota wind, Warner and his company envision something more locally-rooted, an industry founded on smaller, kilowatt installations feeding back into the same communities that built them — an ecosystem of locally-sourced electricity and jobs.
“North Dakota has traditionally been a colonial outpost — oil, coal, wind,” said Warner, who described an extractive, “come in, take, and leave” philosophy that he said has guided energy development in North Dakota in the past. “But we have a choice now.”
Some of the most ambitious solar projects in the state are being charted on the state’s Native American reservations. At 300 kilowatts, the state’s first solar farm is on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, developed by the reservation-based Indigenized Energy. Turtle Mountain Community College, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, has gotten its campus to run on nearly 100% renewable energy , and is aiming to build out solar arrays on its buildings in a broader eco-friendly project.
And Native Brother Services, one of Lightspring’s partners, has recently become the first company owned by Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribal members installing solar panels on the oil-first Fort Berthold reservation.
“We were sustainable people at one point,” said Luger. “This kind of puts us back in line with that. And it’s a good feeling.”
Even so, solar advocates acknowledge that their synergistic dreams may be hard to achieve.
Ralph Jacobson, a developer who has pioneered solar in Minnesota since its infancy there in the early 1990s, recounted how 2013 policies mandating utility solar consumption and promoting community solar gardens flipped a switch for the stature of his industry in the state, suddenly inviting the interest of companies with deeper pockets.
“A sea change from one meeting to the next,” he recalled. “It went from the flannel shirt crowd to the suits.”
But Jacobson argued that favorability towards renewables by Minnesota lawmakers and regulators has forced the state’s utility companies to gradually get on board with some solar. Republican-controlled policy in North Dakota, he argued, could lead to a more abrupt shift to attract big, out-of-state companies.
“Solar will mostly be in small towns and Indian reservations,” he predicted. “And then it will get big. You won’t have that in-between phase that we’re dealing with here.”
Little solar, big world
The future Jacobson described might not be so distant for North Dakota. Already, large, out-of-state developers seem to be taking an interest in the state’s mostly untapped solar market.
The proposed, 200-megawatt Harmony Solar Farm near Fargo received approval from state regulators in 2019. Just to the south, a proposed 350-megawatt array near Colfax, by a subsidiary of the UK-based Green Investment Group , would be the region’s largest solar farm. Lightspring has also heard talk of several other large-scale solar projects taking root in North Dakota, including 1,000 acres leased up south of Mandan by the Chicago-based Ranger Power, for a utility-grade farm there. A spokesperson for Ranger didn’t confirm that proposal, but said the company is “in the very early stages of exploring projects throughout North Dakota.”
And though utility-grade solar projects have so far been stymied in North Dakota (the Harmony Solar Farm has stalled since projecting an original completion date of spring 2020 , while the project near Colfax has foundered on the opposition of two local commissioners ), Warner said he believes the bigger companies are simply laying seeds, biding time for the right political and economic conditions to move forward with hundreds-of-megawatt projects.
State leaders and local officials, Warner predicted, will “deny, deny, deny solar,” up until federal incentives leave them little choice; then they'll help push it forward.
“They’re gonna swoop in, just like wind. They’re gonna develop overnight,” Warner said, and “most of the economic activity will leave the state. Again.”
But for now, the eyes of North Dakota’s small solar community are trained inward. They have big ideas for their grassroots industry.
Recently, Luger got a tour of the community college in New Town, which is interested in hiring Native Brother Services to outfit their campus in solar panels and solar thermal collectors. College administrators hope it could help them get to campus-wide net zero. During the tour, Luger and school officials chatted about their plans to start a solar installation course at the college — a program that could supply Native Brother Services with a homegrown workforce on the reservation, as job offers have begun to outpace their staff.
Since May, the oilfield service company has done exclusively solar jobs. And Luger said he thinks those offers will only pick up as more people see their new installations.
But Native Brother Services isn't swearing off the oilfields, either. After sliding the final solar panel into place on the rooftop in Mandaree, Luger climbed down a ladder and hopped into his truck. A prospective oil job was waiting.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.