WALTERBORO - On a brutally cold day, a bundled-up crowd celebrated the advent of a new chapter in South Carolina's quest to harness the energy of the sun.

The Colleton Solar Farm roughly doubles the solar power generating capacity in the Palmetto State. When operating at its peak, the farm is capable of creating enough electricity to power about 300 homes annually.

"We believe it is part of our mission," Santee Cooper Board Chairman Leighton Lord said Friday.

The 3-megawatt solar farm is less than 1 percent of the state-owned utility's generating capacity, but officials said the facility represents a valuable opportunity to study the future of commercial sun power.

Issues to be evaluated include the effectiveness of fixed-tilt solar panels versus those that track the movement of the sun. Overall, 60 percent of the 10,010 solar panels used for the project are fixed.

How well solar panels convert sunlight into electric power is a key area of research. Typically, the conversion efficiency rate is about 15 percent, but researchers at the University of South Carolina have reported achieving conversion rates as high as 40 percent, said Grant Reeves, InterTech Group of North Charleston senior vice president.

"This is really a laboratory," Reeves said of the 14-acre solar farm.

A meteorological station on the site will correlate power output with weather. A microwave system will transmit real-time data to Santee Cooper headquarters in Moncks Corner.

The state-owned utility, in collaboration with Central Electric Power Cooperative and the state's electric cooperatives, will purchase the energy output of the farm. TIG Sun Energy, a subsidiary of the InterTech Group, owns and operates the $6 million facility.

Anita Zucker, InterTech CEO, said the project is the state's first utility-scale solar project. It will provide valuable information on the cost and operations of solar farms. And it leads the way for many more solar developments in South Carolina, she said.

Zucker and other officials pulled a switch that symbolized the new beginning.

"So far, so good," said Lawrence Hinz, president and CEO of Coastal Electric Cooperative.

The solar farm began operating on Dec. 20. In its first month, it produced enough energy to light 753 60-watt light bulbs for eight hours daily, officials said.

The shiny black solar panels collect sun energy that is converted from direct to alternating current electricity before being transmitted to a substation about a mile away, said Donald Zimmerman, principal of Alder Energy Systems of Charleston.

The Chinese-made solar panels cost $200 each and generate 300 watts of electricity, he said.

State Rep. Kenneth Hodges, who represents Colleton and Beaufort counties, said the solar farm creates invaluable exposure for the area that will help economic development.

"A lot of people are going to look at Colleton County in a different light," he said.

Walterboro Mayor Bill Young agreed.

"We're glad to have the investment here in our community," he said.

The farm is surrounded by barbed-wire topped chain-link fence and monitored by cameras.

South Carolina Electric & Gas and Boeing teamed up for a 2.6 megawatt solar power system that covers 10 acres on the roof of the 14-acre 787 Final Assembly building. The investor-owned utility is building a seven-acre solar farm near the Lake Murray Dam that will produce up to 2 megawatts of energy, and said recently that it is planning solar farms in Charleston, Columbia and Aiken.