More homes in the Lowcountry are generating their own power as the number of solar panel installations in the three-county Charleston region has exploded over the past year.
New figures from a consortium of local governments show that close to 1,400 permits were issued for solar installations in the region last year. That's compared to fewer than 100 in 2015.
The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments says virtually all of those permits were issued to homeowners, as prices for solar systems have fallen and state policy changes have made them more lucrative.
The boom in residential solar projects reflects the state's growing photovoltaic capacity, which is driven in large part by large-scale solar farms in rural stretches of South Carolina.
Solar-generated electricity covers only a small portion of the state's energy usage. South Carolina has 78 megawatts of solar energy capacity, according to a trade group — most of it installed in 2016.
That number is poised to grow enormously in the coming years. The Solar Energy Industry Association expects 1,501 megawatts of capacity to be installed here over the next five years, including about 500 megawatts this year. That's the 17th-highest projection in the country.
The expanded capacity would still be dwarfed by power sources like nuclear and coal, even as it starts to make a dent. The state generates a total of 22,698 megawatts in summer months, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Contributing to the growth is Ed Meredith, whose house in Hanahan was covered with 37 solar panels Friday afternoon as drills whined overhead.
His family decided to make the jump because the numbers added up, he said. He expects to pay $300 a month for the next decade to pay for his system, installed by California-based SolarCity, the nation's largest solar installer. Unlike his $250-a-month power bill, he figured it would add to the value of his home.
His neighbors have evidently made a similar calculus. From Meredith's backyard, you can see two solar systems a block over. Down his street in the Tanner Plantation development, another three houses have panels installed.
"This neighborhood's got them everywhere, and it's been very recent," said Meredith, 34. "People are starting to see how easy it is."
The growth comes just over two years after the General Assembly approved legislation intended to make solar power more lucrative in South Carolina. Act 236 let solar installers lease systems to homeowners so they didn't have to buy them outright. And it ensured that they'd earn a credit for the electricity their panels sent into the power grid, a policy known as "net metering."
Sara Hummels Rajca, who chairs the South Carolina Solar Council, says the state also offers the nation's most generous tax break for renewable energy - a 25 percent credit - and prices for residential systems have been declining as competition grows in the industry.
As much as policy shifts have spurred the industry's growth here, Rajca says there's a psychological shift at play, too. As it gains traction and becomes more commonplace, solar also seems more doable — not a technology that's still years away or only worthwhile out West.
That much is clear in Meredith's neighborhood, where solar panels have sprung up one after the other.
"That's how it goes," said Rajca, who is also community outreach manager for Solarize South Carolina, a nonprofit. "One person in the neighborhood is kind of the champion, the pioneer who drives it ahead, and their neighbors go, 'If they can do it, I can do it.'"