S.C. utility backs solar program to help displace coal

By Rod Kuckro | 03/17/2015 08:26 AM EDT

South Carolina utility SCE&G is embracing the new community-based business model to expand the installation of residential rooftop solar power in the state.

South Carolina utility SCE&G is embracing the new community-based business model to expand the installation of residential rooftop solar power in the state.

SCE&G’s enthusiastic endorsement of the "solarize" movement marks an unusual instance of detente between a major electric utility and proponents of residential rooftop solar power.

A senior utility executive will stand side by side with the president of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit SmartPower when the solarize program is launched this Thursday at the Rotary Club in Charleston.


"This is utility and renewables holding hands to charge into the future," said Lauren Ellison Fox, community outreach manager for Solarize Charleston.

Solarize programs, which began in 2008 in Portland, Ore., boil down to the bulk purchasing of rooftop solar installations in a community, which can typically drive down the cost of an individual household’s solar system by up to 25 percent. South Carolina becomes the tenth state where the solarize movement has taken hold, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Solarize South Carolina "will give SCE&G customers another clean energy option and help to advance solar across the state as intended by the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act that was signed into law last year," said Danny Kassis, SCE&G vice president of customer relations and renewables.

"SCE&G is already leading the country in reducing coal-fired generation in favor of clean energy. Our support and investment in solar is also an important part of this effort to create a balanced energy portfolio," he said.

The solarize program will first be offered in the Charleston metropolitan area. It’s a partnership among SmartPower, Dividend Solar — a national lender that offers $0-down loans to customers — and two large South Carolina solar installers, Alder Energy Systems and Sunstore Solar Energy Solutions.

SCE&G’s generation fleet that serves 675,000 customers is roughly 30 percent nuclear, 30 percent natural gas, 30 percent coal, and 10 percent renewables and hydropower.

The legislation Kassis cited mandates 2 percent of aggregate generation come from solar by 2021, with 1 percent coming from arrays smaller than 1 megawatt and 25 percent of that amount from systems under 20 kilowatts — or residential rooftop solar.

"We thought it started to make sense to bring on additional — even though modest — amounts of clean energy," Kassis said in an interview.

It’s "consistent" with the utility’s underway construction of two new nuclear units that will displace some of the utility’s 1,975 MW of coal-fired generation, he said. "We continue to see our generation portfolio change" and the modest additions of solar will over time help SCE&G "figure out what business models make sense and how utilities can work with those who want to bring on renewables" and ultimately address the issue of how to balance costs for maintaining the grid.

Welcoming expanded rooftop solar is a recognition that as "carbon becomes more price sensitive, we’ve got to have some strategy, and this fits right in with our strategy," he said.

SmartPower President Brian Keane said what is happening in South Carolina is part of a trend across the Southeast, in places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Last year, the solarize movement took hold in Virginia (EnergyWire, Sept. 16, 2014).

"Part of what we’ve seen happening is that costs are coming down so much, both the cost of the hardware and through bundled purchasing, the installation costs drop another 20 percent," he said.

And that lower overall cost "ultimately makes financing for solar viable," Keane said in an interview.

"What’s driving so much of this is untapped consumer demand," he added.

Keane estimates that South Carolina has about 1,000 rooftop residential solar arrays. "We’re going to do 2,000 solar installations in 18 months; literally going to triple" capacity, he said.

And once 60 residential units sign up for the program, Solarize South Carolina will donate a 5 kW system to a public building in the community.

Keane said the program will encourage people to stay on SCE&G’s grid and estimated that a homeowner might get roughly 40 percent power from solar and the rest from the utility. "The beauty is that you can diversify your own energy portfolio."

As Keane looks at SCE&G, he sees a utility that is saying "we like this program; not only are we not standing in your way, but we want to say we’re part of this" effort.

Kassis agreed. "Our approach in South Carolina is different. We didn’t think it was productive to beat each other’s brains in," Kassis said.

In other states "where [utilities and solar interests] have gone to battle, nobody wins. From the very beginning, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this together.’"