PSC hears presentations on solar, wind energy

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 17, 2013 

A solar panel on Furman University campus helps heat and light campus facilities.

SAMMY FRETWELL — sfretwell@thestate.com Buy Photo

Solar and wind energy boosters gained attention Tuesday from an influential state board that could help decide whether alternate forms of energy expand in South Carolina, a state historically reluctant to embrace non-traditional power sources.

The S.C. Public Service Commission spent more than two hours listening to presentations and asking about the expansion of solar and wind in the Palmetto State – and when the session ended, members said they were impressed with what they heard.

“I’m sure it’s going to be extremely helpful to each of us,” PSC chairman O’Neal Hamilton said after the meeting in Columbia.

Commissioners took no action, but asked dozens of questions that could help guide them as alternative energy issues increasingly come up.

The commission’s session comes three months after it canceled a public workshop to discuss solar power, a decision made in response to complaints from utility interests. Hamilton said after the meeting the commission still wants to have a workshop, although he did not say when.

Tuesday’s session was held at the request of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to inform the commission about renewable power. It was an unusual meeting because the PSC typically hears about renewable energy in specific cases involving utilities.

Commissioner Butch Howard said the PSC continues to hear plenty of discussion about solar, wind and energy efficiency.

“All the information thrown at us each day on these three subjects is just massive,” Howard said, noting that the Legislature would have to make changes in some laws to accommodate renewable energy and efficiency measures.

But the PSC also has authority to loosen other controls on renewable energy expansion that power companies have been reluctant to support.

Those include whether to increase a tight cap on solar energy that today makes it difficult for universities and businesses to expand solar power and cut electricity bills. Furman University, for instance, has been stymied from adding more solar power because it has reached the state cap.

The PSC also could take steps similar to its counterpart in Georgia, where utility regulators have effectively forced a major power company to increase its use of solar energy. Last July, the Georgia Public Service Commission told Georgia Power to bring more than 500 megawatts of solar on line. South Carolina today has less than six megawatts of solar power in use.

And the PSC could provide information to legislators weighing new laws to accommodate renewable power.

Power companies, which provide most electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear, did not speak at Tuesday’s PSC meeting. But they have said in recent months they’re interested in providing more solar power. SCE&G recently announced a series of solar farms that would produce 20 megawatts of power and the state’s electric cooperatives also are working on a solar farm near Walterboro.

While those are positive steps, South Carolina still has miles to go, said Lee Peterson, a Georgia lawyer who works full time on renewable energy projects.

He said South Carolina is far behind Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in embracing renewable energy. Many people want solar panels to lower power bills, but utility companies are hesitant to drop regulations that now keep solar energy in shackles, he said.

“We’re talking about free market economics, supply and demand,” Peterson told the commission, urging South Carolina to “work on legislation which reduces unnecessary impediments to capital investment.”

During a break in the meeting, he said tight controls on solar are ironic in a conservative state that typically shuns regulation.

One of the biggest disputes over solar power involves individual homeowners who can’t afford to install solar panels. State law discourages companies from moving into South Carolina and helping finance the upfront costs of solar. These companies help people afford panels and save on monthly power bills, sun advocates say. Supporters say the financing packages are better deals than a person could get with a bank.

Today, a bill allowing third party energy companies to set up in South Carolina is stalled in the Legislature.

“If you change the state law to allow (this), you are reducing state regulation of business, and of people,” Peterson said.

Also on Tuesday, wind power advocate Brian O’Hara told the commission that using sea breezes could help provide an important source of renewable power to South Carolina to offset “volatile fuel prices” with other forms of energy.

The Palmetto State has the second largest offshore wind resource in shallow water on the East Coast, said O’Hara, a former Exxon Mobil executive who now heads the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition. The region’s long coastline and shallow water make wind attractive, he said. Generally, the deeper the water, the harder it is to establish turbines.

Wind power could be established on a large scale and produce substantial amounts of power for South Carolina.

He cited a U.S. Department of Energy study that estimates the offshore wind industry could employ 170,000 to 350,000 people by 2030.

That’s because people are needed to help manufacture wind turbines and install them in the United States, he said.

But unlike solar, utilities have little experience at operating offshore wind turbines, so the state needs some way to do a small-scale project to work out the kinks, he said.

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