LIVING GREEN for Oct. 25, 2012

For Weekly SurgeOctober 22, 2012 

Why doesn’t solar energy shine in Palmetto State?

South Carolina may be full of sunshine, but did you know that only one percent of our state’s energy comes from solar power. Our state is also near the bottom in national solar rankings. So, why does solar energy rarely shine in our state?

Among the answers, according to an article in The State newspaper, include complicated laws, poor tax incentives, an emphasis on nuclear energy and modest renewable energy requirements. Solar power is just not a major sought out energy source in South Carolina, but there are several barriers to getting it to shine here. Only a few hundred people have solar energy systems in South Carolina, which has more than four million residents.

A retired minister out of Columbia is leading a crusade to help South Carolina churches, homeowners and schools go more solar for a reduced cost, especially after a utility prevented his church from getting a money-saving solar system last year. The Rev. Wiley Cooper has started a solar petition against a state law that grants power companies exclusive rights to sell energy in their areas and requires solar companies to be licensed as a utility. Apparently, residents are able to buy their own solar panels and operate them, but it is illegal for solar companies to own and install panels and sell the power back to the property owner. This is a major barrier to those businesses, which may already be well-established in other areas and have the ability to offer low-cost solar panels. For example, there are several other states that allow solar companies to provide free solar panels to homeowners and sell the power directly to them, but you can’t do that in South Carolina. For homeowners, it can cost more than $20,000 for solar panels on their roof. What average homeowner can afford that upfront cost? Cooper, who has support from the S.C. Coastal Conservation League (www.coastalconservationleague.org), plans to approach the state once the legislature is back in session in January.

In other parts of the world, solar power is thriving. Believe it or not, Germany is a world leader in solar energy with cumulative 17,192 megawatts installed. The United States has 5,700 megawatts of installed solar capacity, enough to power 940,000 homes based on the Solar Energy Industries Association’s U.S. Solar Market Insight report. California ranks highest in the U.S. with 1,255 megawatts of solar capacity, Arizona ranks second and New Jersey ranks third. Our neighboring state, North Carolina, ranks seventh with more than 40 megawatts, but South Carolina doesn’t even rank within the top 25 states. According to the S.C. Energy Office, our state has about 4 megawatts of solar capacity and in total; the state has 26,000 megawatts of generating capacity from all sources, including nuclear, coal, hydropower and natural gas.

Solar may not be a primary source of energy in South Carolina, but it does save homeowners some money and adds diversity to the renewable energy portfolios. South Carolina power companies do offer credit on power bills for installing solar panels on roofs, if you can afford the upfront costs of the panels yourself. Santee Cooper does offer a low-interest Smart Energy Loan for energy-efficient improvements, with financing up to 60-months and using a licensed, approved solar company. You can also contribute to purchasing renewable energy through your utility, however, just know that the energy will be delivered to the main power grid, not sent directly to your home or business. According to Palmetto Clean Energy (PaCE), due to technological and logistical limitations, delivering the green power directly to your home will not be possible. You will simply be supporting the fact that renewable energy will be produced and added to the main power grid for your area. Renewable energy includes solar power, wind power, biomass and hydropower. In South Carolina, the Boeing aircraft manufacturing plant in Charleston is one of the most publicized solar projects. The 2.6 megawatt project is one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast and the 6th largest in the nation, with 18,000 solar panels.

In 2011, Santee Cooper opened it Grand Strand Solar Station with 1,325 panels located on Mr. Joe White/10th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, which has a capacity of 311 kilowatts. Other projects have included the solar bus station at Coastal Carolina University, built in 2006, which generates 16-kilowatts and the 20-kilowatt solar panels at the Center for Hydrogen Research in Aiken. Santee Cooper has a renewable energy portfolio of 184 megawatts, but only 28 megawatts of that is actual Green Power generated from landfill methane gas, wind and solar. The majority of that 28 megawatts comes from Green Power generated comes from landfill gas projects. The rest of the 156 megawatts is under investment contracts to help support renewable projects across the state. An interesting solar educational project was the Green Power Solar Schools, a partnership between Santee Cooper and the Electric Cooperative of South Carolina. The program includes 18 schools across the state, including Aynor Middle School and Myrtle Beach Middle School, which have installed 2-kilowatt solar panels to provide a teaching opportunity for students. The new River Oaks Elementary School in Myrtle Beach generates 11-kilowatts from solar panels to offset the school’s energy costs.

It seems that there are small scale localized efforts to harness solar energy and while there is genuine interest for it, the renewable energy movement is still a bit cloudy in South Carolina.

Jennifer Sellers is the sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University and offers her eco-views at her blog, mygreenglasses.com. Contact her at jen@mygreenglasses.com.

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