Politics & Government

SC’s solar power policy thwarts Furman’s green efforts

Instead of relying solely on the local power company for electricity, Furman University began installing energy-producing solar panels at the rolling Upstate campus more than a decade ago.

The idea was simple enough: Furman wanted to demonstrate that solar energy worked. And eventually, if Furman could put up enough sun-soaking panels, the university could save money on power bills and cut pollution that contributes to global warming, university officials figured.

But Furman’s solar energy push has hit a wall. The university has reached a state limit that prevents it from installing more solar to heat and light campus buildings.

“We’re still able to do things, but we just can’t move forward with any future solar,” said Jeff Redderson, Furman’s associate vice president for facility and campus services. “At some point, that will become a real problem.”

The college, well-known in the region for its green campus initiatives, is one of the first – and most visible – examples of how the state’s limit on sun power stands to affect solar energy expansion across South Carolina.

State rules cap the amount of solar energy allowed in South Carolina at 100 kilowatts for non-residential customers, a standard that is tighter than many states, including Florida and North Carolina. The limit, set about five years ago, applies to those who use a combination of sun power and energy from local utilities, which is virtually every solar user in South Carolina.

Solar energy advocates say the state’s cap needs loosening – and state regulators say the issue is at least worth another look. The S.C. Public Service Commission plans to discuss the matter Thursday, at which time it could establish a schedule for public meetings on the solar energy cap later this year.

Hamilton Davis, the energy director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said his group favors increasing the 100-kilowatt limit on solar expansion so that places like Furman can expand their use of non-polluting solar energy and cut power bills.

Power companies were non-committal on raising the limit, but Redderson and state Rep. Dwight Loftis, a renewable energy advocate who represents the Furman area, said it’s time for a change.

“I certainly think it should be raised,” Loftis, R-Greenville, said. “What’s the difference in growing your own food and supplying your own electricity?”

Businesses with large-scale solar plans will increasingly experience what Furman has encountered as sun power becomes more popular and solar panels more affordable, said Bruce Wood, a veteran sun panel installer and member of the S.C. Solar Council. Some businesspeople say they already are being affected by the limit. The PSC’s limit, set in 2008, was established in an effort to better manage renewable energy.

Utilities leery

Solar energy is an emerging technology across the country for both its economic and environmental benefits. People who make energy from the sun need less power from utilities, and that saves money on monthly energy bills. Solar energy also reduces reliance on energy produced from nuclear and coal-fired power plants, the latter of which release gases that contribute to global warming.

Nationally, about two dozen states have less restrictive caps than South Carolina, according to data in a 2013 report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Florida, for instance, has a limit of 2,000 kilowatts, according to the group’s report, Freeing the Grid. South Carolina also has an overall statewide cap that is stricter than in many states.

South Carolina’s 100-kilowatt limit on sun power is one reason the state routinely rates poorly in national studies of solar energy policies, despite an abundance of sunshine. The 2013 Freeing the Grid report gave South Carolina failing grades in two key categories: net-metering and interconnection rules. It was the only state to receive “F’s” in both categories. The rules are supposed to make it easier for people to generate their own solar power affordably.

Power companies have been hesitant to embrace large-scale solar expansion, in part because of the potential loss of revenue. SCE&G, which serves Columbia and Charleston, also is building two new nuclear plants at a total cost of about $10 billion that some speculate has kept interest in solar power tepid, at best.

In the past two years, the utility lobby has either opposed bills to help people and businesses afford solar energy or stood by as the bills withered in the Legislature.

With the 100-kilowatt cap, the PSC has authority to make the decision.

The state’s major investor-owned utilities, SCE&G and Duke Energy, would not directly discuss their positions on changing the limit when asked by The State.

“What we need are cost-effective and equitable regulations that protect all South Carolina customers, recognizing that the installation of solar affects many stakeholders, not simply customers who put solar on their rooftop,” Duke’s statement said.

Duke, which provides power to Furman, also declined to discuss the 100-kilowatt limit’s impact on the university. It’s possible the university could exceed the cap with another solar project if Duke would allow it. Boeing, the aircraft maker in Charleston County, struck a deal with SCE&G several years ago to allow solar panels on its roof, even though the installation far exceeded the limit. Redderson said Furman and the power company have had a cordial relationship and have in the past worked together on renewable energy.

Still, there’s no guarantee an agreement could be worked out in a way Furman could afford because such a deal would favor the power company, renewable energy experts said.

SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said his company is prepared to brief the PSC when a meeting is scheduled.

Sun city

A drive through the Furman campus reveals numerous solar panels placed strategically near or on major buildings. That includes large panels at a university greenhouse near the soccer stadium and panels at the Shi Center for Sustainability alongside the 187-year-old school’s signature lake. Furman also has solar panels atop some student houses to heat water.

Its biggest project is a set of solar panels installed on the university’s physical activities center about two years ago. Installation of the 92-kilowatt system pushed Furman to the state limit, the university learned.

Next door to the campus, Furman owns a 30-acre plot of land for a potential 5-megawatt solar farm, which would make it larger than any other single solar project in South Carolina today. The estimated $15 million price tag of the solar farm certainly is the biggest holdup, Redderson said. But the state restrictions on solar don’t help future campus projects, he said. Furman also wants to develop some smaller-scale solar projects at some point, he said.

Furman’s efforts on renewable energy haven’t gone unnoticed. It was the only university in South Carolina to make a 2011 national list of 52 colleges and universities considered leaders on sustainability. Furman scored an “A-,” on the list, which also included Brown, Yale and Harvard. In South Carolina, The Citadel scored worst with a “D+,’’ according to the College Sustainability Report Card of more than 300 colleges and universities.

Furman, which has fewer than 3,000 students, also is a charter member of an effort by colleges across the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The university signed onto the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007. It since has inventoried all the greenhouse gas emissions on campus and in 2009 completed an action plan to make the university more sustainable.

By 2026, Furman hopes to have reduced carbon pollution significantly.

“We hope to become carbon neutral by 2026, but in order to do that, we would need to invest in a larger-scale renewable energy project,” Redderson said.