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Solar environment looking up in South Carolina

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South Carolina continues to make strides in becoming a friendlier state for renewable energy, though some supporters were disappointed when a bill that would have accelerated solar expansion efforts bogged down in the Legislature.

The bill, S.626, would have provided reductions in property taxes that homeowners and businesses face when installing solar power, but it died in the Senate just before the 2016 legislative session ended after winning House approval.

That last-minute failure frustrated solar proponents who view solar energy systems like any other necessary home improvement.

“We don’t pay taxes on hot water heaters, or breaker boxes, or electric services,” said Andrew Epting, then program director for the S.C. Clean Energy Business Alliance. “If South Carolina had gotten that (bill) done, it would have really sent a message to the solar industry nationwide that we’ve got the policies in place now to make this industry work, and it really needs to work.”

Solar energy is becoming more popular as consumers seek cleaner energy options. (Photo/Shutterstock)Bob Gibson, vice president of education and communication at Smart Electric Power Alliance, touched on the issue after his remarks at the 2016 S.C. Clean Energy Summit last month at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

“It seems like the right thing to do to help this young industry get going, to give them that financial break,” Gibson said.

That setback aside, other promising solar developments seem to bode well for the industry’s S.C. future — one that experts say can co-exist, harmoniously and profitably, with powerhouse utility companies.

“There’s no going back on customers going solar,” Gibson said. “It’s happening. It’s going to continue to happen. Utilities still have to cover their costs. They have to maintain the costs of maintaining the grid, (and) the solar systems would not be delivering the value to their customers if they weren’t part of the grid. … Solar produces when the sun is shining, so the majority of the 24-hour clock, we need power from some other source, and that’s going to be the utility. The utility’s opportunity is in providing some of these new services.”

That could include owning and managing the inverter necessary to convert the sun’s energy from direct current to alternating current, Gibson said. Utilities could then make sure electricity is distributed at peak times and increase the stability of the grid — helping, for example, to restore power quickly during a storm.

“If the utility is involved in the solar proposition, they’re the electricity experts. They’re the grid experts,” Gibson said. “They can get the most value out of that solar. They don’t have to own the solar. But they have to work with their customers to find the ways, the opportunities, where both the customer will get a benefit from it and the utility and all the customers who may not have solar will get some benefit out of it.”

The potential of such a partnership was on display recently, when the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce flipped the switch on a 36-panel, 9.3-kilowatt solar energy system on the roof of its Gervais Street headquarters on June 22. 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.

The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce recently installed solar panels on its roof. (Photo/Provided)The system is projected to pay for itself in four to five years. Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the small business organization, paid around $35,000 to install the panels in the building, which he owns and had already outfitted with energy-efficient light fixtures.

“The opportunity is there now because of the success in the General Assembly and success at the federal level with the tax incentives,” Knapp said. “We have to do more than simply talk.”

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.

Sara Hummel Rajca, community outreach manager for Solarize South Carolina, said her organization is seeing an increased interest in solar 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.”

Solarize South Carolina provides information about solar energy systems to potential customers on its website.

Solar isn’t an option for every individual. Homes may have too much tree cover, or renters may be limited as to what improvements they can make. That’s where another possibility comes in: community solar.

“It’s the idea of building a local solar project in the community, where people live and can see it, and offering the power from that to anybody who wants to pay for it at the price that it cost the co-op to build that, and they’ll share that,” Gibson said. “The beautiful thing about that is, even if it’s a little bit more expensive than grid power today, there’s no fuel involved in running that. It will operate for 25 or 30 years, at least. So you lock in that cost of the electricity to you for 25 years.

“Community solar is a great way for utilities to be part of the solar business.”

The idea has proven popular with electric cooperatives around the country. GTM Research, a leading electricity analysis and advisory firm, predicted a 59% compound annual growth rate in community solar from 2014 to 2020 in a report released in 2015. The report found that 24 states had at least one community solar project online in 2015, and 20 states had or were in the process of enacting community solar legislation.

In South Carolina, SCE&G unveiled a 500 kW solar energy station in North Charleston in January that will use more than 2,000 solar panels to generate approximately 946 megawatt-hours of clean energy a year — enough to power 80 homes. In 2017, Duke Energy Progress will begin operating solar arrays designed to allow multiple customers to share the output of a single solar facility.

Knapp praised the work SCE&G did on his building, and Epting emphasized that keeping utilities profitable is in the best interest of renewable energy.

“We want to make sure our utilities are well-funded and they don’t need to go for rate increases,” Epting said. “We don’t want to see the utilities’ model change to the point where they cannot be profitable. Nobody’s making that claim. We want good solid policies that will allow people to pull power from where they want to pull power.”

Craig Knowlton, director of business development for Alder Energy, the Mount Pleasant-based company that installed the solar panels at Knapp’s building, said renewable energy helps both individuals and utilities — and is a reality that isn’t going away.

“This helps (utilities) hit their (solar power percentage) marks, and it helps them employ solar installers throughout the state,” Knowlton said. “The business reduces their electricity. We’re relying less on coal power and nuclear power and instead just on the sun that’s shining on that roof. Once you’ve paid for that system, then all the electricity it’s producing is essentially free.

“It’s no longer just for early adopters. Now, there’s no reason it can’t just be kind of normalized and an option for businesses and homeowners to consider.”

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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