Sunny outlook for solar energy in South Carolina

The Colleton Solar Farm, just outside of Walterboro, is currently the largest in South Carolina. (Brad Nettles/File)

Don't expect a reduction on your electric bill this month, but the dream of cheap, clean, unlimited energy keeps inching closer to reality in South Carolina. S.C. Electric & Gas Co. announced in August that the company would seek proposals for the construction of new solar farms in Cayce and North Charleston. The two farms could create enough combined electricity to power the equivalent of more than 700 homes.

That total is a tiny fraction of the state's overall need, but every watt generated by renewable power sources moves S.C. closer to energy security and a cleaner environment. And if the farms work efficiently and effectively, they could pave the way for more extensive projects and boost support for renewable energy in general.

The timing for construction of the new solar farms coincides with the state Distributed Energy Resource Program Act, a bill drafted with input from conservation groups and power utilities and signed into law in June. SCANA, the corporation that owns SCE&G, had plans in motion for the farms before the legislation was proposed. But representatives of SCANA's renewable energy division pointed to the collaboration in writing and passing the bill as a positive indicator for the future of renewable power in South Carolina.

The primary focus of the bill was to make it easier for homeowners to lease solar panels, but it also clarified regulations for the development of large-scale solar farms by utilities.

SCANA has made public its plans to advance a diversified energy portfolio that includes equal parts natural gas, nuclear and clean coal, with 10 percent of total energy derived from renewable resources. SCE&G plans to generate at least 20 megawatts of solar energy by 2020.

Santee Cooper runs what is currently the state's largest solar farm in Colleton County. The farm began producing electricity in December and generates about 3 megawatts of energy, or enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes.

More traditional sources of energy will remain the foundation of South Carolina's power grids for a long time yet, but even relatively modest solar projects like those proposed by SCE&G can provide substantial benefits. Used on a large scale, solar farms can prevent thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, reduce dependence on coal, natural gas and nuclear energy and help create a cleaner, healthier environment.

Ideally, the new farms will demonstrate that solar power is no longer a technology for the distant future, but an increasingly feasible energy option here and now.