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Tesla-owned SolarCity leaves South Carolina just months after expanding into the Lowcountry

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SolarCity employees install solar panels on the roof of a home in Ladson in March. The company, which is owned by electric car maker Tesla, is pulling out of South Carolina less than a year after moving into the Lowcountry. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The nation's largest solar installer is pulling the plug on its South Carolina expansion.

SolarCity, the clean-energy subsidiary of Tesla Inc., confirmed Friday that it's closing its office in the Lowcountry less than a year after it opened, ending its first foray into the Palmetto State and one of its first pushes into the Southeast.

The unexpected move comes at a moment when the solar industry is gaining traction in South Carolina, driven by giant industrial-scale installations but complemented by an expanding market for residential solar power.

California-based SolarCity's departure from the state may owe to the shakeout from its acquisition by Tesla, the electric car manufacturer run by Elon Musk, who was an early investor in SolarCity. A few months after that deal closed in November, Tesla said it was scrapping SolarCity's door-to-door sales force.

"As a result of the elimination of our door-to-door sales channel, which we announced in April, we are closing our SolarCity office in Charleston," Tesla spokeswoman Kady Cooper said in an email Friday. "We look forward to resuming our physical presence in South Carolina in the future."

Tesla says it's planning to finish installing the solar systems it's already signed contracts for, but it's not accepting new orders in South Carolina.

The company said it would hold onto its Ladson office until it's done with its remaining work. A few vans parked outside announced SolarCity's presence Friday, but the building was dark and doors were locked by mid-afternoon. A sign in the window asked the Postal Service to leave its packages with a business down the road.

How many workers were affected by the closure wasn't immediately clear. Tesla declined to say if any employees were laid off, but it said they were given a choice to transfer to new jobs.

And the company hasn't filed a layoff disclosure with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, which takes notice of shutdowns affecting more than 50 people.

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SolarCity announced its plans to lease solar systems in South Carolina last October, a decision that seemed to cement that state's status as an emerging solar market. The company, which has installed hundreds of thousands of systems, is the largest solar firm in the U.S., and it was dropping into a state that has seen the industry expand rapidly.

South Carolina's solar capacity has grown roughly tenfold in the past year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, reaching 144 megawatts in the first quarter — enough to power some 16,000 homes.

Industry watchers say the growth owes to the falling price of a residential solar system and a package of policy changes approved in 2014. The state legislature OK'd generous tax incentives for solar that year, ensured customers could sell electricity back to the power company and let the industry lease systems to customers instead of selling them outright, a model preferred by SolarCity.

Those changes helped spur a building boom for giant solar farms, which have driven the state's expanding capacity. But they also led to a boom in the residential market: In the tri-county area, for instance, local governments issued 1,400 permits for solar arrays last year, up from fewer than 100 the year before.

Sara Hummel Rajca, the chair of the S.C. Solar Council, said she was surprised that SolarCity was pulling out of the state but doubted it would dent the industry's growth, which has depended on word-of-mouth referrals more than door-to-door sales.

"We grew really fast before they were here," Rajca said.

Meantime, Tesla is keeping the door open for a return to South Carolina.

The company is planning to release its "Power Roof" system of electricity-generating shingles later this year, and when it does, the company says, it may well be back.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.

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