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SCE&G looks skyward to diversify its energy portfolio

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By Chuck Crumbo
ccrumbo@scbiznews.com
Published March 26, 2014

The sun is shining at S.C. Electric & Gas Co.

The principal subsidiary of Cayce-based energy provider SCANA Corp. said it plans to build a 2-megawatt solar farm this year on seven acres near the Lake Murray Dam and tie it to the company’s grid.

And over the next two years, the company expects to build five more permanent solar farms across South Carolina, adding 20 MW of new solar energy to its system.

Workers install a rooftop solar system at the Boeing Co facility in North Charleston. (Photo provided by S.C. Electric & Gas Co.)
Workers install a rooftop solar system at the Boeing Co facility in North Charleston.
(Photo provided by S.C. Electric & Gas Co.)
SCE&G, which has 675,000 electricity customers in 24 S.C. counties, also formed a Renewable Energy Products and Services team to develop a strategy for the design, implementation and marketing of renewable energy resources such as solar, wind and biomass.

Interest in renewable energy sources, particularly solar, has been building since the company connected the first customer-owned solar system in 2007, said Marcus Harris, general manager of the team.

In March 2013, Kevin Marsh, chairman and CEO of SCANA, gathered a group of 14 employees to form a team to look into the issue.

As part of the study, the company polled 900 customers, residential and commercial users, said Therese Griffin, the team’s manager for marketing and sales. Griffin said 81% responded to questions and 70% indicated an interest in solar power, Griffin said.

Another factor the team considered was how solar would fit into the company’s generation portfolio as it planned to retire more coal-burning power plants and lower carbon emissions levels.

By October, the team presented to Marsh a report supporting expansion of solar, and a month later he announced formation of the renewables team.

“We will work with our customers to protect the environment and reduce our overall emission levels by adding more renewable energy resources to South Carolina’s power supply,” Marsh said.

The team’s immediate task is to put into effect a solar energy strategy and develop solar solutions and programs for businesses, nonprofits and residential customers, according to the company.

However, the march toward adopting more solar and other renewable energy resources also faces obstacles — both regulatory and cost.

No other S.C. utility has more solar energy on its system, SCE&G said, adding about 200 customers — both commercial and residential — use solar to augment power needs.

Overall, the company has about 4 MW of solar power on its system including its largest facility — a 2.6-MW installation covering 10 acres of the Boeing 787 Final Assembly Facility’s 14-acre roof in North Charleston.

The Boeing system, which SCE&G owns, consists of 18,000 thin-film photovoltaic solar laminates. It generates enough electricity to power approximately 250 homes, SCE&G said.

Other commercial installations include Water Missions International. The nonprofit organization installed a 100-kilowatt, $350,000 solar system consisting of 450 panels on the roof of its new headquarters at the former Navy base in North Charleston. The ministry produces excess power and sells it back to SCE&G, saving $12,000 a year in electric bills.

In the Midlands, a 53-kW system comprising 177 solar panels occupies the roof of the Columbia Museum of Art on Main Street in downtown Columbia. The system, funded with a $213,500 grant from the S.C. Energy Office, produces 10-20% of the museum’s daily power needs.

Adopting solar power also may be a way for a company to show customers and the public it’s committed to the environment. That’s why Half-Moon Outfitters chose to augment its power needs by installing a 5-kW solar system at its 9,000-square-foot outlet at 2912 Devine St. in Columbia.

“Doing solar is a visual representation of our core values as a company,” said Katie Walsh, store manager. “It’s taking what we say we believe in and actually putting it into practice.”

The Charleston-based company — which sells gear for outdoor sports like kayaking, rock climbing, backpacking, surfing and travel — wanted to adopt solar power when it moved a little over two years ago into its current location in Shandon, Walsh said.

A rooftop system was ruled out because it required too many penetrations of the surface, which could weaken the roof and likely lead to leaks, Walsh said.

So the company’s owner, Beezer Molten, came up with the idea of building a “solar tree,” which stands at the rear of the parking lot but is visible from Devine Street.

The solar tree is about two stories tall, has a metal-clad trunk and limbs, with solar panels serving as leaves.

The tree produces about 10% of the store’s power needs monthly, Walsh said, adding that customers can check a meter inside the store to see how much power the tree is generating.

Regulatory and cost challenges

SCE&G aims to make solar and renewable sources, such as hydro and wind, constitute as much as 10% of its future power generation portfolio, with the remaining 90% split evenly among nuclear, natural gas and coal. Solar and other renewable sources have a lot of ground to make up, according to the American Council of Renewable Energy. The group’s most recent statistics show solar and renewables make up just 3% of all the energy generated commercially in the state.

One challenge SCE&G and other utility companies face in fostering the use of solar is the state’s lack of a renewable portfolio standard, which is a regulation requiring increased production of energy from renewable energy sources.

“SCE&G would like to see public policy in South Carolina that recognizes the value of renewable resources as part of a diverse, clean portfolio of generating resources,” Harris said. “We hope to see the state encourage the development of an overall balanced energy portfolio through open, fair treatment of all resource options through utility integrated resource planning and customer economic choices within an established net metering framework.”

Net metering, which the state adopted in 2009, allows customers who generate some of their own power with solar or other renewables to lower bills and even sell excess generation back to SCE&G.

Another obstacle is the state’s retail electric rate structure, which the state Energy Advisory Council labeled “outdated” because it’s based on the key assumption that the utility is the sole provider of electricity.

“The current business model will not be able to accommodate the ‘fruit’ of higher penetration levels and wide-scale adoption of” distributed generation, such as solar, according to a draft presented in November to the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee.

“You have to make sure that those who are not able to take advantage of solar are not subsidizing those who do,” Harris said.

Cost is another consideration. For example, a 1-kW solar system costs about $4,500, said Casey Logan, who manages interconnectivity for all of SCE&G’s net-metering projects.

While that price may be steep to many homeowners, Logan noted that the cost dropped about 50% in the past five years.

To encourage the use of renewable fuel sources, the state offers tax credits and low interest financing.

For commercial and industrial customers, there’s the Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the state Business Development Corp., said Rebecca Griggs of the state Energy Office.

There’s also the S.C. Solar Energy System Credit, which provides a corporate or individual tax credit of 25% of eligible costs for the purchase and installation of a solar energy system, she said. The maximum incentive in any given tax year is $3,500 or 50% of the taxpayer’s tax liability for that taxable year, whichever is less.

SCE&G aims to promote solar and renewable sources. One way it publicized the renewables option was by teaming up with the University of South Carolina to ensure all of the electricity needs for the USC-Clemson football game on Nov. 30 were met using green power.

SCE&G displaced the amount of electricity generated from traditional energy sources to power the stadium during the game with energy from renewable resources. The amount of power generated was 24 megawatt-hours, enough to power more than 2,220 homes.

“It seems like the time to begin to integrate renewables, in particular solar, with our long-term generation portfolio, which includes nuclear,” Harris said.

“It’s very important for us that the renewables aspect of our business is really part of that whole plan to move toward a lower emissions generation portfolio.”

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