South Carolina’s first solar farm is complete and producing energy from a site in Colleton County, three months after state utility interests announced their initial foray into larger-scale sun-powered projects.
The plant went on line for commercial use Friday, marking what solar energy proponents say is a milestone for South Carolina.
Utilities in the Palmetto State have been reluctant to embrace solar energy, saying it is a less reliable power source than other energy forms – despite growing interest nationally in solar’s economic and environmental benefits.
“We hope the utilities will continue to diversify their generation mix where solar makes sense,’’ said Grant Reeves, president of the state’s Solar Business Alliance.
TIG Sun Energy I LLC, a company that Reeves is associated with, led a team of S.C. contractors who developed and built the $6 million project near Walterboro for Santee Cooper and the state’s electric cooperatives.
When operating at its peak, the farm is capable of generating 3 megawatts, enough to power about 300 homes annually, according to Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility. The 3-megawatt plant roughly doubles the amount of solar in the entire state.
The project, announced in September, involved installing 10,000 solar panels on about 14 acres of fenced land. The site includes rows of panels tilted toward the sun to absorb solar rays.
Power generated from the Colleton solar farm is sold to Santee Cooper. The company and the state’s electric cooperatives say the solar farm will show them important details on how sun-fired energy systems work.
“This is a large project, so we want to see how this works,’’ Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.
Renewable energy boosters say South Carolina should have installed solar farms long ago, given the abundance of sunlight and the need to diversify the state’s power sources. But they are pleased utilities recently have expressed interest in solar farms. SCE&G also plans a series of solar farms that could generate up to 20 megawatts of power.
Solar is growing in popularity because the raw material that it uses – sunlight – costs almost nothing to convert to electricity. It doesn’t require the purchase of fuel or pollution-control equipment to keep contaminants from getting into the air, ground or water.
By contrast, coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants must buy fuel to make energy, which can be expensive. Also, coal plants create air pollution and atomic energy plants generate high-level nuclear waste.
Despite the Colleton project, the state remains behind others across the country and in the South in the use of solar energy. Power companies, for instance, remain hesitant to support some changes in state solar policies that could make sun power more affordable for homeowners.
Many people want to install their own solar panels to cut power bills, but have been stymied by high costs and a state policy that discourages other companies from helping to finance expensive solar systems.
Utilities note that solar power doesn’t work at night. They also fear an erosion of their profits if people use solar panels to generate some of their own electricity. As a result, utilities either have opposed solar expansion or done little to advance it. However, in recent months, power companies have said solar energy is worth investing in.