A program by the state's three largest power companies that allows customers to pay a small surcharge to boost renewable energy production has been slow to catch on.
About 360 people from the companies' 1.2 million customers are participating in program. That provides enough money to purchase power from about 14 people statewide with solar panels, S.C. Electric & Gas officials said.
But SCE&G and the S.C. Energy Office said they hope when the economy improves, more people will be willing to pay the $4 monthly donation to ensure that solar power from private sources finds it way onto the grid.
"We rolled it out at the beginning of the recession and that's not the best time to ask people to add to their utility bills," said Trish German, energy conservation manager at the state energy office.
The program is intended to encourage people to install solar panels and offers them a little money to do it.
SCE&G, Duke Energy and Progress Energy, which provide electricity to about two-thirds of the state's power customers, offer the Palmetto Clean Energy program.
The program is funded with a $10,000 grant from the S.C. Energy Office and $30,000 in donations from the three utilities.
Energy producers get 19 cents a kilowatt hour for the power provided from solar panels - 15 cents from the program and 4 cents from the utility.
One of the program's solar producers is 70-year-old Suzan Garland of West Columbia.
She and her husband, Alexander Hyde, in July purchased 21 solar panels for their 1,200-square-foot home.
The panels cost $45,000, but that was reduced by a 30 percent federal tax rebate and another 30 percent state tax rebate.
Last month, the couple's power bill would have been $200, but they lowered it by $45 by using the solar power and got an $80 payment for selling back surplus power.
Garland said she doesn't care about calculating when the panels might pay for themselves. "We call it doing the next right thing," she said. "We're trying to be good conservators of the planet."
Garland said the couple would have purchase more solar panels, but 21 was the maximum SCE&G would allow.
The energy office's German said the cap was intended to limit power generation to small residential producers. "We just don't have enough money in the program to fund larger producers," she said.
Long said only solar producers are enrolled in the program, but the utility hopes to add methane- and biomass-generated power.
Santee Cooper has been offering a similar program since 2001. It adds a supplemental $3 charge that is not tax-deductible. "We were green before green was red-hot," spokeswoman Laura Varn said.
That utility, however, produces all of the clean power itself through methane-generating station at landfills and solar panels.
Santee Cooper, along with smaller electric co-operatives in the state, has 4,000 to 5,000 customers participating in their programs.
"We do it because it's the right thing for the environment," Varn said. "The more we can use our natural resources the better for the state and the environment."
A North Carolina program established in 2004 has more than 12,000 customers participating.
SCE&G's Long said he hopes more people will take advantage of the program as awareness grows and the economy improves.
"Some of our customers passionately want to help, and there are still people signing up," he said. "But it's hard for many people to find that discretionary income."
For details, visit palmettocleanenergy.org.