Santee Cooper policies cast cloud over solar

The 3-acre Jerry Zucker Solar Park that opened in North Charleston in 2016 will pale in comparison to the state’s first major utility-scale solar farm slated for 800 acres in Jasper County, providing 72 megawattts of electricity to SCE&G, enough to power 12,200 homes. (File)

Two new nuclear reactors under construction in central South Carolina will cost state residents billions of dollars for years to come — even if they never get finished. Solar power, on the other hand, has gotten so cheap in the past few years that the state’s utilities could massively expand their renewable energy capacity at a long-term cost savings.

It would not necessarily cost ratepayers any money up front to build a new solar farm, and it could actually save them money on their electric bills.

In fact, solar is now the cheapest way to build new electricity generating capacity — even without any kind of subsidy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and other sources.

It’s cheaper than coal. It’s far cheaper than nuclear. It’s even cheaper than natural gas, which itself has dropped dramatically in price as fracking has expanded.

Compare that to the nine times SCE&G has raised electricity rates in the past eight years just to pay for the two new reactors, both of which face an uncertain future after the main contractor in charge of constructing them filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.

As SCE&G and Santee Cooper determine how to proceed on their new nuclear reactors, the conversation should include ditching all or part of the project in favor of building an equivalent amount of solar capacity. It likely would be in customers’ best interest.

Of course solar isn’t a perfect substitute for nuclear power — or fossil fuels. Solar energy is only generated when the sun is shining, and battery storage isn’t currently an economically feasible option on a large scale, although prices are coming down.

For that reason, South Carolina will still need a healthy supply of more reliable energy — known as the base load — for the foreseeable future.

But most of the state’s power already comes from coal, gas and nuclear plants. Only about one percent currently comes from renewable energy, including solar.

Most experts estimate that the amount of solar power could be expanded to about 20 percent of the total electricity generated without risking reliability.

And in South Carolina, the peak times for electricity consumption are generally when the sun is out (and the air conditioning is turned on) anyway, making solar a more practical way to grow the state’s energy capacity than it might be in other climates.

An increasingly popular business model of allowing private companies to buy or lease unused, marginal farmland for solar farms and sell the power to utilities means savings for utilities, savings for customers, income for landowners and property taxes for rural counties. It even means a few hundred temporary construction jobs per farm.

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That’s a winning solution all around.

Indeed, with a large-scale solar farm generating millions of dollars in property taxes over the life of a contract, South Carolina counties with dwindling tax bases could be in store for a windfall, even considering the discounted tax rates typically granted to solar power producers by counties. Energy companies currently have to negotiate with officials of individual counties for discounted rates.

The S.C. Legislature is considering a bill that would extend an 80 percent tax discount statewide, bringing the state in line with neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, both of which have built more than ten times more solar generating capacity than South Carolina.

But even with that large incentive, solar power would still likely be a boon to counties, since the disused land ripe for solar farms doesn’t generally generate much of a tax bill anyway. The Legislature should give the solar farm bill serious consideration.

As the days get longer and the temperature rises, the extra sunshine ought to be a reminder of the cleanest and cheapest way to generate new electricity for South Carolina. The state’s residents should demand that we take better advantage of solar power.