Cottageville is on the verge of doing something its mayor doesn’t think any town in the state has done: It’s going fully renewable.
The Colleton County town will soon power its municipal complex with solar panels in hopes of shedding a few hundred dollars from its monthly bills. When the project is done, the community center, courthouse and police department — all in a converted school — will draw electricity from the sun.
It may well be the first town in South Carolina to switch to a fully renewable power source at a moment when solar power is surging onto the state’s grid. But then, it also has an easier path to getting there than most municipalities: The town only needs 124 kilowatts of power, the equivalent of 25 or so homes.
The project has been in the works for two years, Mayor Tim Grimsley said, ever since a solar installer approached the town about putting up panels. That deal fell through, but the thought-process had been set.
So when the solar firm Arres Inc. moved its headquarters to Cottageville in 2015, the plan was revived, and they eventually struck a deal. Arres would put up panels with no upfront cost and the town would pay for the electricity they generate, not unlike getting a power bill each month. The installation is expected to be operational this fall.
Getting to that point took awhile, said Arres Chief Executive Officer Ben Egan. South Carolina's solar growth was in its early days then, and his company was small — a three-person crew that's since grown to 38.
"Solar wasn't prevalent, so lots of people had questions about it," Egan said.
But as Arres grew and picked up a few local projects, he figures the sentiment shifted.
"I think that kind of motivated them and gave them the trust factor anyway, that this is something real. This is something they could take advantage of."
The mayor guesses the arrangement will save Cottageville between $400 and $500 a month — not a huge sum, but a boost for a town of 853 residents, about 40 miles west of Charleston. It's led to talk of other ways to cut costs, too — LED lights in town offices, solar-powered lights in a new park, maybe even batteries to store the electricity the new panels provide.
The town's government is used to squeezing what it can out of its space in the old Cottageville Elementary School building. The police department works in kindergarten classrooms, court is held in a converted cafeteria and town officials store documents in a locking, walk-in refrigerator next to their offices in the kitchen.
"We're looking for a very, very nice drop in our electric bill," Grimsley said. "The more you save, the better off you are, and the more you can do."
Grimsley said he's surprised more cities and towns aren't looking to solar to cut expenses, but to be sure, the project Cottageville is undertaking is modest compared with the commercial installations sprouting across South Carolina, Egan said.
South Carolina's solar capacity is ballooning, spurred by tax credits and a 2015 state law that gave solar panel owners the ability to claim credits for the power they send into the electrical grid, a policy known as "net metering." That's led to a pickup in residential projects and a wave of massive utility-scale installations.
"When you get into that realm, you're looking at megawatts," Egan said, referring to a unit of measure 1,000 times larger than the kilowatts the Cottageville project is measured in. "Those are significantly larger than something like this project."
By that large-scale measure, South Carolina has relatively limited solar capacity: 119 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, most of it installed in 2016. But that could soon change: Over the next five years, the trade group estimates that 1,483 megawatts of solar panels will be installed across the state.
About 500 megawatts are expected to come this year, the group says, equal to roughly 4,000 projects the size of Cottageville's. Those projects could power the town many times over, but only one actually will.