NEWS: Here comes the sun

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Solar energy’s future is brightening in South Carolina

By Bill Davis, senior editor  |  A year after major policy changes were implemented to regulate solar power in South Carolina, the state’s solar industry is showing solid growth, according to politicians, industry leaders and conservationists.

The changes came about in the wake of Act 236, which passed the legislature unanimously in 2014 and allowed individuals to lease solar arrays and to have the ability to sell back excess energy from their panels to state utilities and electric cooperatives.

Additionally, there are state and federal tax incentives in place for those wanting to transition their house to solar as well as several tiers of enhanced buy-back rates for excess power generated.

Hard to gauge the growth that’s occurring

More than year was spent fine-tuning the bedeviling details in establishing and encouraging a new power generation paradigm for the state.

This time last year, there were roughly 830 solar sites throughout the state, producing more than 5,000 kilowatts, according to data from the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), which has some oversight authority over solar energy.  That number of site is not considered a huge number with South Carolina’s summer-driven energy hunger, but it is on the way to Act 236’s 1-percent goal of solar by 2020.

These days, officials say it’s hard to gauge exactly the growth because of an internal ORS snafu in tabulation. But an ORS staffer said accurate numbers will be tabulated and released in the next few weeks. Regardless, that same staffer said the number of installations on homes and rooftops are expected to be “way bigger.”

While “way bigger” is tough to quantify, several observers have pegged the number of installations at close to 1,700 installations, with even more in the offing. If that’s close to the exact number, it would appear that South Carolina has doubled its all-time rooftop solar within a year.


Anecdotal experiences highlight forward movement

Paul Fleury is in his second year as the chair of the state’s Solar Business Alliance, as well as a founder of the Charleston-based solar development company, Southern Current.

Fleury said he was “generally very pleased” with the pace of solar expansion he’s seeing across the state, especially in the residential sector. SCE&G has doled out its full allotment of residential incentives for the year, while Duke Energy Power, the Upstate’s largest private generator, is closing in on its full share, he said.

Fleury said expansion in the commercial sector is taking longer because it generally implements larger projects and takes more time due to how complicated the projects can be.

Kenneth Searcy, who heads up the solar initiative at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, agreed. Additionally, Searcy said the pace of commercial conversion has been slowed by an extension of federal tax credits, which were extended from ending this year until the end of the decade.

Searcy said the extension relieved some of the “time pressure” on commercial projects and has made for more breathing room for more companies to implement fuller due diligence and design efforts.

“Still in its infancy”



State Sen. Chauncey “Greg” Gregory, the Lancaster Republican who was the primary author of Act 236, said this week that his building supply company is in the process of adding solar to its roofs. “But we haven’t pulled the trigger on it, yet,” he said.

Gregory said that solar is “still in its infancy” in South Carolina, and much more work has to be done educating residents and consumers about solar.

Mollie Gore, spokesman for Santee Cooper, said there has been a “definite” learning curve for her utility in explaining how newer ideas like “community solar” can benefit consumers.

Even though not as much of Act 236 directly applies to Santee Cooper, Gore said her utility has begun creating programs that would benefit condo developments, especially along the Grand Strand, where owners may not control their roofs.

Gregory said he was excited to attend the dedication of a solar field, the next utility-level of generation, earlier this week in Rock Hill. But he added that he would like to see more new home construction and development include solar.

Fleury added that the biggest chunks of solar installations have taken place in the metro Upstate and Lowcountry in South Carolina, in part, because of higher levels of wealth and progressive thinking abound in those corners.

Fleury agreed the primary driving force for energy consumers remains cost, and not means of production. But as the industry and technology continue to improve and costs fall, solar will begin to grow across the state at similar rates, he said.

SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said his utility is “absolutely committed to making solar part of our energy mix,” and that renewable energy generation, like solar and wind, has to be a part of its portfolio.


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