SC rural cooperatives back solar farm

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 11, 2013 

— South Carolina’s first large-scale solar farm, to be built in the countryside near Walterboro, gained support Wednesday from a group that has so far been cool to sun power: the state’s electrical cooperatives.

A day after the state-owned Santee Cooper power company approved plans for the farm, the Central Electric Power Cooperative board agreed to support the 3-megawatt farm in Colleton County.

When completed later this year, the solar farm will dwarf any other single project that supplies sun power directly to the utility grid in South Carolina. It also will be larger than SCE&G’s 2.6 megawatt rooftop solar system that fuels the Boeing aircraft manufacturing plant in North Charleston.

But a deal to develop the sun farm might not have come about if not for the state’s electrical cooperatives, which have softened their position after being criticized for slowing down the push for solar energy expansion South Carolina.

John Frick, the state cooperatives’ vice president for government relations, said Wednesday that solar needs to be examined. There is evidence that electricity generated by the sun one day will be cheaper -- and the cooperatives need to be ready to embrace that as a way to help keep power bills down for their customers, he said.

Solar “is coming down in cost and at some point in the future, we expect it to be cost competitive with conventional sources of generation,” Frick said. “When that time comes, we think it is very important for us to have experience operating a solar resource.”

Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said the cooperatives launched the push to test solar with a farm. A solar farm typically contains multiple acres of sun-soaking panels that are aligned in a field to draw energy. The energy is then sent to the utility for general distribution.

The cooperatives’ interest in the farm is a departure from recent positions. Cooperatives recently derailed plans for a meeting to discuss South Carolina’s solar energy policies and have opposed solar friendly laws in the Legislature. Like the state’s power companies, the cooperatives have been concerned that using solar could drive up utility rates, even though solar is widely used in other states to help stabilize power bills. Power companies also are concerned about solar companies setting up shop, selling power directly to customers and cutting into utility profits.

A solar farm producing 3 megawatts won’t come close to replacing coal, nuclear, natural gas and hydro as the main sources of energy used to make electricity in South Carolina. Santee Cooper, one of three major power companies, generates about 6,000 megawatts. Currently, Santee Cooper draws about one-third of a megawatt from solar energy sources.

Andrew Streit, a board member with the S.C. Solar Business Alliance, said the state has plenty of issues that aren’t being resolved by Santee Cooper’s decision, although he views it as a positive.

“A single project by a South Carolina utility doesn’t address the state’s overall energy policy issues,” Streit said.

Despite abundant sunshine, South Carolina has some of the least solar friendly rules in the country, making it difficult for people to afford rooftop solar systems. The state, for instance, doesn’t require power companies to use a certain percentage of renewable energy and the state limits the expansion of non-residential solar for its investor-owned utilities, SCE&G and Duke Energy. Solar is touted as a way to save money without polluting the environment or creating toxic waste, problems with coal and nuclear plants.

Still, Streit said he’s encouraged that Santee Cooper and the cooperatives finally have taken action to develop the solar farm

, noting that the farm might act as a catalyst for policy changes.

Santee Cooper officials said they were glad to support the solar farm idea after the cooperatives approached power company executives. A contractor will be hired to operate the farm for Santee Cooper.

Santee Cooper generates the power that cooperatives buy and distribute to customers in some of South Carolina’s most rural areas. Central Electric is the cooperatives’ organization that acquires the power from Santee Cooper, which serves about half the state’s residents.

The company “is pleased to partner with Central and the state’s electric cooperatives in planning this project, which will set a new bar for solar power in South Carolina,” said Lonnie Carter, Santee Cooper president and chief executive officer.

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