RIDGELAND — A thousand acres of solar panels in a California desert makes sense as fossil-fuel pollution sparks a world of heated debate about the critical need for clean, less expensive energy. But such a utility-scale solar project in rural Jasper County gets cold, hard stares from a growing number of locals wondering how many more Lowcountry farms and forests will be scalped to satisfy Virginia-based Dominion Energy Inc.’s pursuit of raw power in South Carolina.
“This is Palmetto Electric Co-Op country,” one of them said as he leaned against his Ford F-150 pickup truck outside Keith’s Country Store on Gray’s Highway near Dominion’s new solar site the size of a thousand football fields. “With our co-op, we know who we’re dealing with. We meet regularly, elect officers, share profits, win prizes — but that blue sign down the road in front of the 10-foot-tall chain-link fence says all those thousands of solar panels behind it belong to somebody else. That’s an ugly problem.”
Dominion Energy, with 6 million customers in eight states, is pushing to buy SCANA, the parent company of cash-strapped South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., a state-sanctioned monopoly that has 700,000 customers. Dominion purchased SCE&G’s natural gas division and 1,500 miles of pipelines in 2015 for $497 million. It now offers to pay another $7.9 billion and assume $6.7 billion of SCE&G debt to own the rest. The deal would include a $1,000 credit to each of SCE&G’s long-time customers, who for years have been paying in advance an additional $27 a month for nuclear power they’ll never get. That’s a total of $37 million a month with no end anytime soon.
SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper blew $9 billion on two partially built and later abandoned nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer power station north of Columbia. State legislators have been in a quandary ever since about how to get their constituents a return on what they have already paid, and off the hook for billions more they owe.
Dominion has two solar sites in Jasper County, both purchased from start-up companies two years ago. The smaller site is 100 acres near Ridgeland that generates 10 megawatts of electricity. The other is the new 900-acre solar site between Gillisonville and Keith’s Country Store that produces an estimated 71 megawatts — enough to power 15,000 houses.
Although the SCE&G buyout is in limbo, Dominion has worked out a deal with SCANA to sell solar power produced on the Jasper sites to homeowners here and elsewhere for the next 35 years. Customers can purchase solar electricity conventionally or buy individual solar panels and earn power-bill credits based on how much each one produces, which looks good on paper.
But solar-site neighbors aren’t so sure. A third massive solar operation near Gillisonville drew a room full of citizens at two Jasper County Council meetings demanding a stop for that permit. They cited destruction of wildlife habitat, depreciation of nearby land values, loss of Jasper’s rural character and creation of virtually no new permanent jobs. The latest developer quickly withdrew the application.
On Thursday, what was supposed to be a happy ribbon-cutting at Dominion’s 900-acre Gray’s Highway solar farm turned sour when council members were hit with more complaints. By the time the ceremony was completed, “No More Solar Farms” signs were up along Gray’s Highway for them to read all the way back to Ridgeland.
Big power companies — especially SCE&G and Santee Cooper — have terrible reputations for destroying the rural nature of the state, including mangling majestic live oaks to accommodate ugly power lines, or clear-cutting forests and swamps to build power stations, transmission lines and, now, solar deserts.
Palmetto Electric Cooperative, founded in 1940 and based in Ridgeland, has 66,000 customers. It’s one of 20 user-owned power companies in South Carolina supplied by Santee Cooper. First known as the S.C. Public Service Authority, Santee Cooper was created in the late 1930s when 177,000 acres of carbon-capturing hardwoods and dense swampland were obliterated to build Lakes Marion and Moultrie and dammed to feed a new a hydroelectric power plant at Pinopolis in Berkeley County. The goal was to supply the Charleston Naval Shipyard specifically in preparation for U.S. involvement in World War II, and to promote port city industrial development in general.
The irony is that soon after the first hydro-turbines began producing electricity, Santee Cooper’s politically appointed board approved a coal-fired plant on the lower lake that has been generating 99 percent of its electricity there ever since. So much for carbon-capturing hardwoods as well as clean hydro-power.
Now, in the wake of the botched nuclear reactors project, Gov. Henry McMaster wants to sell Santee Cooper to cover its portion of the multibillion-dollar boondoggle. But sales of both SCE&G and Santee Cooper would leave Palmetto Electric Co-Op and other customer-owned power companies without a reliable, homegrown supplier. Folks here and elsewhere wonder how this would affect their monthly bills.
Even more wondrous is how much they could be saving if all those billions wasted on half-built reactors had been spent on smaller, more environmentally appropriate energy technology.
John M. Burbage is a newspaper journalist, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and grows vegetables on Burbage Farm in Hampton County. He can be reached at email@example.com.