As the relentless Columbia sun beat down, Frank Knapp Jr. talked about the power of solar.
Knapp, the president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, flipped the switch on a new 36-panel, 9.3-kilowatt solar energy system atop the chamber’s Gervais Street roof on Tuesday. The panels are expected to produce about 12,626 kilowatt-hours of energy annually and save up to $2,525 per year for the 5,500-square-foot building.
For Knapp, a longtime advocate of solar energy, the move is about more than money.
“If we don’t do something to get a handle on climate change, the end result is going to be much higher levels of sea, and we can’t afford that,” Knapp said. “If we don’t control that, our tourism industry is going to suffer. Our economy is then going to suffer. This is really being proactive. This is accepting science and saying we need to do something now.”
Solar energy became more accessible to S.C. business and home owners with the passing of a 2014 bill that loosened restrictions on the industry. Act 236, or the Distributed Energy Resource Program, allowed solar leasing, making the technology easier to obtain, while requiring utilities serving more than 100,000 customers to obtain 2% of their average peak power from solar energy sources by 2020.
“It sent a message to homeowners and businesses across the state that they have a choice in where they draw their power,” said Andrew Epting, program director for the South Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance. “It also created one of the fastest-growing solar markets in the United States.”
Another provision of Act 236 increased the net metering cap from 100 kilowatt to one megawatt. Net metering ties solar power into the grid and often sells the electricity generated back to a utility at a 1-for-1 rate. In the case of the chamber building, the electricity is being sold back at a higher rate than the business pays for it, an option with a higher upfront cost that will produce a faster return on investment.
“The system should pay for itself in about four to five years,” said Craig Knowlton, director of business development for Mount Pleasant-based Alder Energy, which installed the panels. “That’s a combination of selling electricity and also taking advantage of a South Carolina solar tax credit of 25% and a federal solar tax credit of 30% of the system cost, and then you can write off the depreciated value of the asset.”
Knapp, who owns the building where the chamber and other offices are located, paid around $35,000 to install the panels. He’s also replaced the lighting in the building with more energy-efficient fixtures and is now eyeing a hulking air conditioning unit he calls a dinosaur.
“We’ve been beating this drum since 2007,” Knapp said. “The opportunity is there now because of the success in the General Assembly and success at the federal level with the tax incentives. We have to do more than simply talk. I wanted to do more than simply talk. I wanted to lead by example, and say it can be done.”
Sara Hummel Rajca, community outreach manager for Solarize South Carolina, said her organization is seeing an increase in solar interest in the state.
“Even though solar has been around for a while, it’s very new in South Carolina,” Hummel Rajca said. “People just haven’t seen it. They may have heard of solar, but they haven’t seen it on their neighbor’s roof.”
Knapp is pleased to have taken a step toward making solar more visible.
“It will accrue to the benefit of everybody,” Knapp said. “The utility company will have less stress on their infrastructure, including the grid. The businesses in the long run will save money. It will help all of us to address climate change. It is a win-win-win.”