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While still relatively small, the use of solar power is increasing in South Carolina. File/Provided

SWANSEA — Wannelle Witt Lefkowitz smiles as she looks out over the more than 80 acres of South Carolina farmland that's been in her family for three generations.

These days, though, the expansive fields are home not to grasses or crops but to rows and rows of gleaming solar panels, tilting throughout the day toward the sun to gather energy that will ultimately power hundreds of homes a year.

"I truly believe that the future of energy is using sustainable sources," Lefkowitz said during a recent tour of her land. "I can think of no better use for this property."

The more than 45,000 solar panels that line Lefkowitz's farm in Swansea, about 20 miles south of the state capital of Columbia, were installed by Cypress Creek Renewables.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company says it's developed 2.2 gigawatts of solar power in more than a dozen states, with many other projects in development. For example, in December it announced a $115 million installation for Orangeburg County. The 75-megawatt facility is expected to be completed next year.

In Swansea, Cypress Creek is selling the power it generates to a renewable energy program set up by South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which has more than 700,000 electricity customers in the Palmetto State.

SCE&G and parent company SCANA Corp, have been the subject of public scorn since last summer when the companies — along with co-owner Santee Cooper — abandoned construction of two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, following the bankruptcy of lead contractor Westinghouse Electric.

Thousands lost their jobs in the $9 billion debacle, which has spawned multiple lawsuits, as well as state and federal investigations and the resignation or retirement of high-ranking executives at both SCANA and Santee Cooper.

Since last fall, lawmakers have been embroiled in debate over bills to rejigger the regulatory processes, repay customers and neuter a law that's allowed SCANA to charge customers more than $2 billion toward paying down its V.C. Summer debt. 

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State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, wants to force South Carolina's big electric utilities to buy solar power from smaller producers if it's the more affordable alternative. File/Staff

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One Senate lawmaker is speaking out about his frustration over the chamber's inability to even schedule a hearing to consider his legislative proposal to require utilities like SCANA-owned SCE&G to buy wholesale power from smaller, independent power producers like Cypress Creek if they can make power more affordable.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says his proposal would benefit utility customers in the state — who already pay among the highest rates in the nation — and smaller energy producers.

If companies like Cypress Creek can produce power more cheaply than companies like SCANA, Davis says, they can then sell cheap power to a bigger utility, which can then pass the savings on to consumers.

The big companies, Davis wrote in a recent opinion piece, have an "incestuous" relationship with state regulators, which have been "routinely approving" utilities' "expensive capital projects and rubber-stamping their rate increases with, at best, cursory consideration of the consumers' best interest."

"We have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, yet none of the legislative responses to the V.C. Summer disaster address the service monopolies provided by the Legislature to the large utilities," Davis recently told the AP, stressing the need for diversification in South Carolina's energy market, currently dominated by SCANA and a few other producers. "It speaks to the influence those utilities have in the Legislature. It's embarrassing."

Once fully operational, Lefkowitz's solar farm will generate enough energy for 1,000 homes. For Lefkowitz, the benefit is both monetary and psychological. Over the 35-year span of her lease agreement with Cypress Creek, the company will be paying more than $2 million in property taxes, money that will directly benefit the area her family has called home for generations.