South Carolina’s major utilities say they’re committed to solar power and renewable energy, although they don’t rely heavily on sun power to serve customers.
SCE&G, Duke Energy and Santee Cooper proudly point to the solar programs and projects they have undertaken.
Each company gives customers credit on power bills for installing solar panels on roofs, each company has developed solar energy production sites and each company says it is interested in doing more with solar in the future, utility spokespeople said.
“We certainly are in favor of renewable energy and solar if it makes sense from a cost standpoint, as well as a generation standpoint,” SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said.
But only a fraction of 1 percent of South Carolina’s energy comes from solar power, and the state is near the bottom in national solar rankings, despite having plenty of sunshine. No more than a few hundred people get electricity from solar energy systems in South Carolina, a state with more than 4 million residents.
Complicated laws, poor tax incentives and modest renewable energy requirements have kept solar power from becoming much of a player in South Carolina, say solar industry officials, environmentalists and renewable energy analysts interviewed by The State newspaper.
While nobody expects solar to supplant traditional energy forms, such as nuclear and coal, it has become increasingly popular in other states as a way to save homeowners money and diversify the utility grid.
Sun power typically is generated at large solar farms that feed energy directly to the grid or from homes or other buildings that rely on solar to help provide electricity. In the latter case, people send excess solar power they don’t use at their homes to the utility grid in exchange for a break on their power bills.
South Carolina’s power companies say going solar is a good idea, but increasing their production of sun power is more complicated than some people realize. Solar energy remains more expensive to produce today than traditional energy sources, such as coal, nuclear and the increasingly available natural gas, they say.
Still, power companies say they have plenty going on with solar.
One of the most touted solar projects in South Carolina is on the roof of the Boeing aircraft manufacturing plant that opened about two years ago in North Charleston. The 2.6-megawatt project is one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast and won an award from the S.C. Solar Council for the advancement of sun power. The solar panels provide power to Boeing’s plant.
The Boeing solar project, owned and operated by SCE&G, accounts for most of the solar capacity in South Carolina, records show. The state has about 4 megawatts of solar capacity, according to the S.C. Energy Office. All told, South Carolina has about 26,000 megawatts of generating capacity from all sources, including nuclear, coal, hydropower and natural gas, the Energy Office reports.
“SCE&G’s leadership to install the solar system and their commitment to customer service helped Boeing achieve its request for a 100 percent renewable energy site,” Yanity said.
SCE&G, headquartered in Cayce, also has worked with small businesses, such as Half Moon Outfitters, on solar projects that can help provide power. Half Moon has a “solar tree’’ filled with panels at its store on Devine Street in Columbia.
The power company, with more than 600,000 customers, also participates in the Palmetto Clean Energy initiative. The program pays customers who produce solar power from panels on their homes or in their yards. The program is funded through donations by other customers, who support alternative energy. They voluntarily pay more on their power bills each month to help those who produce solar energy.
Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned utility, offers low-interest loans that can be used to buy solar panels and has launched an effort with the state’s electrical cooperatives to install solar arrays in schools as an educational tool.
Among the company’s projects are a “Green Power Solar Pavilion” at Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach. The 16-kilowatt solar pavilion was the first at a public university in South Carolina and provides enough energy to fire up 75 personal computers, the company says. It’s largest solar project, in Myrtle Beach, is capable of generating 311 kilowatts, or about one-third of a megawatt.
Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said her company’s solar projects are part of a larger effort to use renewable energy, including biomass and landfill gas.
“We still have a great record of promoting renewable generation, both installing and using it,” Gore said.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy is active in solar power in North Carolina and is prepared for similar opportunities in Upstate South Carolina, officials said. The company says it is shifting away from biomass and more toward solar power as a renewable source, according to Duke’s 2012 resource plan.
The utilities’ solar efforts in South Carolina don’t impress people such as Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. He called the utilities’ efforts “greenwashing,” or an effort to appear more environmentally friendly than they really are.
“They’ve painted themselves with a green brush as much as they can, but they do minimal things,” the renewable energy advocate said. “What percentage of renewable energy comes from solar? It is a fraction of 1 percent.”
Smith said power companies would do more in South Carolina if they were required by law to use more solar, wind and biomass to supplement their energy systems.
In North Carolina, for instance, Duke Energy must meet a state requirement to produce 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2021. But the company doesn’t have to meet that requirement in South Carolina. Unlike North Carolina and 28 other states, South Carolina does not require power companies to provide a percentage of their energy from renewable sources, including solar. Power companies have been cool to the idea in South Carolina.
The state’s Palmetto Clean Energy program, which Duke and SCE&G participate in, also has drawn fire for what critics say is a lack of effectiveness. The utility program has 25 customers in South Carolina and operates on a budget of $70,000-$80,000, according to the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff.
Recently, SCE&G told customers the program was cutting the rate of reimbursement they receive for providing solar power.
“I’m actually surprised it took SCE&G this long to do this,” said Libby Smith, a Charleston resident who is paid for energy produced by her home’s solar panels. “We are not talking about a place with a lot of interest in stimulating this program.”
Anthony James, an energy official with the state’s Office of Regulatory Staff, said the program’s effectiveness has been modest, but he said that may not last for long. PACE is expected to receive a $2 million boost through the merger of Duke Energy and Progress Energy, James said.
“It’s a brighter day for sure,’’ James said.