By the new year, there will be a green energy field of dreams in Colleton County looking like something out of a science fiction movie.
Solar energy is generated from photovoltaic materials that convert sunlight into electrical energy. Simple solar power systems provide energy for calculators and wristwatches. More complicated systems power communications satellites, water pumps and the lights, appliances and machines in some homes and workplaces. Many road and traffic signs are now powered by the sun.
Some 10,000 solar panels up to 10 feet tall will fill a 20-acre plot of land next to I-95 just south of Walterboro. They will represent a next generation of providing electricity in South Carolina.
Nuclear, hydroelectric, coal and gas long have been proven as reliable sources of power. Now, some of the best minds in the utility business are turning to the power of the sun to see if it can play a significant role in the manufacturing of electricity for public consumption.
Santee Cooper, the state-owned public utility, has ramped up the solar stakes with a Colleton project that is the largest in South Carolina aimed at harvesting the sun’s energy. The estimated maximum capacity of the solar farm, 3 megawatts, is only a drop in the bucket of the utility’s overall system of 5,200 megawatts. But the pilot project will provide a way to study the reliability and cost-effectiveness of solar energy.
A bid award for the solar provider is expected next week. Santee Cooper will buy sun energy from the contractor, and Central Electric Power Cooperative will funnel it across the state to 20 electric distribution cooperatives.
According to some reports, the solar plant will cost $4 million to build, but it will not affect the wallets of power customers. “It’s not going to be large enough that it will impact rates,” said Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore.
Three megawatts is enough to power 1,500 houses, but that capacity is reached only 15 percent of the time. “Solar power is intermittent. You only get maximum output a limited part of the day,” she said.
Solar power represents the eventual possibility of lower costs for electricity makers and consumers, but that is not the case yet.
“It simply just costs more than our existing generation,” said Ron Calcaterra, president and CEO of Central Electric. “We need to start investigating this to see what we can do to make this a viable alternative. That’s what our goal is,” he said.
Generating energy from the sun already is happening at Boeing and Water Missions International in North Charleston, but the Colleton County solar energy farm is a different creature because it represents large-scale distribution of solar power for public consumption.
And it nearly doubles the amount of solar-powered electricity in the state. Santee Cooper provides electricity for about 2 million people in all 46 counties.
“Renewables” such as solar energy account for 1 percent of the state’s power, according to state regulators. Coal fuels about 40 percent of electricity generation capacity in South Carolina, followed by natural gas at 25 percent. Nuclear energy is the source of about 18 percent of Palmetto State power with natural gas next at 18 percent.
By 2022, natural gas is forecast to be the largest source of power at 31 percent followed by nuclear at 28 percent and coal at 27 percent.
Hamilton Davis, energy and climate expert at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the Santee Cooper solar project is a good thing and the sort of effort that utilities should be pursuing to better understand the potential of sun-generated power. But South Carolina lags far behind Georgia and North Carolina when it comes to solar energy. “They are just leaving us in the dust,” he said.
What’s needed in the Palmetto State is leadership to make the state more solar-friendly, he said. The state has some of the lowest tax incentives for sun-generated power, which renewable-energy boosters say discourages private investment in large-scale solar farms.
And the state’s cap on the amount of solar energy a business, school or charity can install also limits solar expansion. The state’s 100-kilowatt cap is among the most restrictive in the country, according to news reports.
“We’re not leading the pack,” Davis said.