SC’s Santee Cooper adding solar power to its grid

| sfretwell@thestate.com September 10, 2013 

FILE PHOTO: Stephen Morrison, an Upstate homeowner, installed solar panels at his home and business several years ago because he believed in the environmental benefits of sun power.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— State-owned utility Santee Cooper Tuesday became the first electricity producer in the state to approve a solar pilot project aimed at putting added power on its grid.

The utility will purchase up to 3 megawatts of renewable electricity from a solar farm to be constructed on an 18- to 20-acre site in Colleton County, starting by the end of the year.

Santee Cooper is in the final stages of negotiations to select a developer from two bidders to build the farm off Interstate 95 near Walterboro, the utility said.

The selected developer will build the solar farm on property owned by Coastal Electric Cooperative, produce the energy and deliver it to Coastal Electric’s distribution system for sale to Santee Cooper.

Pricing and terms and conditions of the project will be negotiated, the utility said.

“Santee Cooper’s always been a leader in renewables,” said Lonnie Carter, president and CEO of the state-owned utility. “We first started out with landfill gas, long before it was even popular.”

This project, however, is merited by solar power’s popularity with the public, Santee Cooper officials said, and its promise as a non-emitter of greenhouse gases.

“Santee Cooper’s always trying to make sure that it understands the technology that’s available to us, and making sure we are selecting the best technology that gives our customers the best cost,” Carter said.

“This will benefit (residents) because we will have first-hand information about what it takes and what it costs to do this, so we can speak intelligently about it to them and to others.”

Santee Cooper’s plan for a solar farm is notable in a state with some of the nation’s least friendly sun-power laws. The vast bulk of solar energy now used in South Carolina comes from Boeing’s rooftop system in North Charleston.

Adding a 3-megawatt solar farm would roughly double the state’s solar output.

But the power company’s effort doesn’t resolve the array of obstacles that still face solar energy in South Carolina, said Hamilton Davis, who tracks renewable-power issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

“This is a good thing,” Davis said. “But ultimately, South Carolina has a lot of work to do to catch up with our neighboring states and the rest of the country.”

Solar energy has become increasingly popular across the country as a way for customers to save money on power bills, while protecting the environment. Unlike coal and nuclear plants, solar panels don’t produce air pollution or toxic waste.

At the same time, people who can afford rooftop solar systems can sharply cut their energy bills by reducing the amount of electricity they need from power companies. Most solar energy systems on homes rely on a combination of traditional power and sun power.

In this case, Santee Cooper’s solar farm would not be used in a way to help customers lower power bills, but could yield other benefits by simply feeding sun-fired electricity into the utility’s grid, said Steven Spivey, Santee Cooper renewable-energy manager.

“There’s a big interest nationwide to add more solar energy to the grid all over,” said Spivey. “There’s a lot of interest in other parts of the country. It hasn’t hit the Southeast very big yet, but we think that down the road, there’s a possibility it will be coming, so we want to be prepared for it.”

That means knowing what effect adding loads of solar energy to their system would have, he said.

“A project like this is big enough that we can look at it and see the impact of it and learn and prepare,” Spivey said.

Sending solar power into the grid is viewed as a plus because it helps diversify a utility’s power base while reducing reliance on coal and nuclear, environmentalists say. But directly supplying the grid doesn’t mean people will have lower power bills.

Davis said the state still needs to institute policies or change laws to help homeowners and others take advantage of solar energy. Power companies have opposed many solar initiatives, fearing competition, renewable-energy boosters say.

Power companies historically have used state law to prevent solar-energy companies from setting up shop in South Carolina and offering lower-cost solar panels to customers. Solar panels, though dropping in price, are still expensive, easily topping more than $20,000 to install.

The state also has some of the lowest tax incentives, which renewable-energy boosters say discourages private investment in large-scale solar farms.

And the state’s restrictive cap on the amount of solar a business, school or charity can install also limits solar expansion. The state’s 100-kilowatt cap is among the most restrictive in the country.

Davis said other states that had been hesitant to support solar are now changing their minds.

This summer, Georgia’s Public Service Commission required Georgia Power to construct 525 megawatts of solar energy by 2016. But South Carolina’s Public Service Commission put off plans for a public forum on solar energy after the state’s electrical cooperatives complained.

Despite utility opposition, Santee Cooper’s decision to contract for a solar farm appears to have been initiated by the cooperatives, which comprise much of the state-owned power company’s customers. The cooperatives were among the utility interests last spring interested in a “pilot” solar project before the state made wholesale changes to its alternate energy policies.

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