SCE&G plans to develop solar farms across state

SCE&G, criticized in the past for its resistance to renewable energy, plans to build as many as five solar farms under a proposal to sharply increase the company’s use of non-polluting sun power.

The electric utility will start next year by constructing a seven-acre solar farm near an aging coal plant at the Lake Murray dam. The 2-megawatt facility would be the second major solar farm in South Carolina behind one Santee Cooper and the state’s electrical cooperatives plan near Walterboro.

Over three years, SCE&G plans to build at least one other sun farm in the Columbia area, as well as farms in metropolitan Charleston and in the Aiken area, the company says. A recent newspaper advertisement shows two in Charleston and one in Aiken, although SCE&G officials said the exact locations are tentative.

All told, the farms will produce about 20 megawatts of power, enough to serve 20,000 homes. That still remains only a fraction of the approximately 5,000 megawatt capacity provided by all the company’s power plants, but it marks a substantial uptick from the existing solar capacity of about 4 megawatts.

“We’re very excited about it,’’ said Marcus Harris, a 22-year company veteran who will head a new renewable energy team for SCE&G. “Our group here has been working long hours over the last several months to pull this together and begin to implement our plans.’’

SCE&G’s announcement comes during the same week that a new study was released urging power companies to brace for the rise of solar power in South Carolina. The study, to be discussed next month by an energy advisory committee, said the state faces a “paradigm shift” away from only traditional energy sources to increased renewable power sources.

Sun power is popular nationwide because it doesn’t create radioactive waste like that generated at nuclear power plants, nor does it pollute the air with toxins and greenhouse gases like those released from coal-fired power plants.

Many consumers are pushing for easier access to solar power because it also can save them money on monthly electric bills, although the industrial-scale solar farms SCE&G plans are unlikely to lower anyone’s rates.

In this case, more solar farms will diversify the company’s sources of power and satisfy a general interest by customers in the use of more solar energy, company officials said. Diversifying power sources is considered important to prevent too much reliance on a single source for energy, such as nuclear.

Harris said he expects SCE&G’s solar farm at Lake Murray to be constructed in late spring or summer and be fully operational by the end of 2014. It will be developed near the McMeekin power station, a 1950s-era coal plant that is being closed.

Harris said he expects the other solar farms, projected to be 2 to 4 megawatts each, could be developed within three years.

Environmental permits, such as a stormwater license, may be needed, although the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said that is uncertain, because the agency is unaware of the SCE&G solar project. Harris said it was too early to discuss permitting issues.

Solar energy won’t supplant traditional sources of power, such as nuclear and coal, because it works only when the sun shines. That’s a point SCE&G, Santee Cooper and Duke Energy have in recent years been quick to emphasize as they moved deliberately slowly on increased use of renewable energy in South Carolina.

Now, however, SCE&G, Santee Cooper and the state’s electrical cooperatives appear to have modified their positions and are more tightly embracing solar energy, said business people and environmentalists who have in the past criticized the state’s lack of progress on sun power.

“We now have three of the major energy providers in South Carolina recognizing the benefits of solar energy, which is a huge shift from just five years ago,’’ said Andrew Streit, a solar energy advocate whose company installs sun panels for businesses and military bases. “It’s commendable what they are doing.’’

SCE&G, which has about 675,000 electricity customers in central and coastal South Carolina, previously has been reluctant to support legislation to increase solar.

In 2011, the company’s complaint to the state Public Service Commission prompted a New England solar company to leave South Carolina without providing solar energy systems it promised to schools, churches and charities. The company’s stance sparked an outcry from school principals, charity workers and ministers, who were depending on solar to cut their power bills.

Grant Reeves, president of the S.C. Solar Business Alliance, said media attention to South Carolina’s restrictive solar policies helped put the spotlight on the issue.

In a series of stories last year, The State newspaper outlined how restrictive state laws, poor tax incentives, opposition from utilities and other factors made South Carolina one of the least friendly states for solar power in the country, despite an abundance of sunshine. Other newspapers also have begun reporting on the issue.

But Harris and SCE&G officials said they’ve been looking at expanding solar power for longer than the public might realize.

Several years ago, SCE&G developed the state’s largest solar installation, a 2.6 megawatt rooftop array at the Boeing aircraft plant in North Charleston. And the company has for months sought comment from various interests on expanding sun power, including critics of SCE&G, officials said.

“We brought people onto our campus here and talked to people about what the community would like to see from solar,’’ Harris said. “Plans were beginning to form back in the summer.’’

SCE&G’s plans for solar expansion, however, don’t mean all issues with sun power are resolved in South Carolina.

Duke Energy, headquartered in North Carolina, has no plans for a solar farm in South Carolina because state incentives and policies don’t encourage such a project, said company spokesman Randy Wheeless.

In South Carolina, Duke and other utilities also have been reluctant to support legislation making it easier for individual homeowners to buy rooftop solar panels. Many people are interested in having solar panels because generating their own power is free.

By cutting their demand for electricity from power companies only to night or during rainy periods, homeowners can save money on monthly bills. But solar panels can cost more than $20,000 to install on a house, and state law now discourages solar companies from offering affordable solar panels. Legislation pending in South Carolina would allow solar power companies to set up shop in South Carolina and provide lower cost sun panels.

“I’d say the tide has turned and they are more receptive,’’ Reeves said. “The proof will be how they advocate with the General Assembly in January. If they quit blocking things and become more cooperative, it will be a good day in South Carolina. I’m optimistic.’’