April 13, 2019
BY SAMMY FRETWELL
Santee Cooper, the embattled, state-owned power company, is being criticized for what a clean energy group says is a failure to promote and expand solar power, a nonpolluting energy source touted as a way to help customers keep their monthly electric bills low.
In a report released Thursday, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said Santee Cooper lags far behind the state’s other major utilities in the amount of solar energy installed for customers.
The alliance, which tracks renewable energy in seven Southern states, lists Santee Cooper as a “sunblocker’’ for what the group calls weak efforts to expand solar in South Carolina.
“State-owned Santee Cooper serves approximately 1 million retail customers, yet fails to offer sufficient solar resources,’’ the report said, noting that the power company joins a handful of other Southeastern utilities that “are sticking with outdated plans for low levels of solar.’’
The report does not go into detail about why Santee Cooper isn’t measuring up, but statistics show that solar energy is relied on less in Santee Cooper’s territory than in SCE&G and Duke Energy’s.
Santee Cooper has only 22 megawatts of installed solar in its service territory, compared to 373 megawatts for SCE&G and 722 for Duke Energy’s two South Carolina divisions, according to the alliance’s report, which is based on data from the federal government and power companies. The state power company is expected to see limited solar growth over the next four years, the report said.
Santee Cooper, which says it has a good solar program, serves eastern South Carolina and the state’s electric cooperatives. SCE&G’s territory includes Charleston and Columbia, while Duke serves eastern South Carolina and the Upstate, including Greenville, Spartanburg and Rock Hill.
Southern Alliance officials said Santee Cooper may be farther behind SCE&G and Duke, in part, because the company remains the target of a sale after the 2017 failure of the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project. Santee Cooper and SCE&G quit the unfinished project after spending nearly $9 billion.
While SCE&G has since been sold to Dominion Energy, Santee Cooper’s situation remains unsettled, possibly making the company less interested in initiatives such as solar expansion. Gov. Henry McMaster is actively marketing the company for sale, but no deal has been struck.
“The precarious nature of where they stand right now in terms of whether or not they are going to be privatized, I think that probably is holding them back,’’ said Bryan Jacob, the alliance’s solar program director. He also noted that some investor owned utilities have been quicker to embrace solar than public utilities like Santee Cooper.
Eddy Moore, a renewable energy specialist with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said he’s not surprised by Santee Cooper’s low ranking in the alliance report. Moore said the company has been slow to embrace solar power, particularly large-scale projects that help diversify the company’s sources of energy and save money for customers.
“Santee Cooper has been sitting on their hands,’’ Moore said, noting that solar development companies are actively looking to sell power to utilities in South Carolina.
Solar energy, unlike coal and nuclear, produces power from the sun without generating air pollution, greenhouse gases or toxic waste. It can save money for homeowners who install energy-producing panels on their roofs by reducing the need to buy as much power from utilities. Big solar farms are also touted as a way to save customers money because natural gas, coal and nuclear are subject to fuel costs that can rise and fall.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore did not challenge the overall numbers in Thursday’s report that show Santee Cooper is behind Duke and SCE&G on solar — but she said the company has a broader view of renewable energy.
Much of the company’s renewable energy comes from other sources, such as landfill gas and biomass, she said. She also said Santee Cooper installed a demonstration solar project near Myrtle Beach, established the state’s first industrial-scale solar farm in Colleton County and recently opened a solar farm in Orangeburg County.
“We got into renewable generation back in 2001,’’ Gore said. “Back then, think how expensive solar was. I don’t even know if it was commercially available. So our focus was on doing the landfill generation stations, which took methane gas out and used it like you do natural gas to generate electricity. We have six or seven of those around the state. We did put the first solar on the grid.’’
Gore also said some of the information in the report takes the utility to task over programs that help people get rooftop solar panels to save money on power bills. But the alliance’s information includes electrical cooperative customers that can’t participate in Santee Cooper’s rooftop program, Gore said. Santee Cooper serves over 1 million people, including cooperatives, but Gore said only 185,000 of the company’s direct retail customers can participate in rooftop solar programs.
John Clark, a former state energy office director, said he suspects Santee Cooper has fallen behind SCE&G and Duke on solar initiatives because the state power company is not overseen by the Public Service Commission, where solar advocates have been vocal in pushing for more sun power by investor-owned utilities.
That has allowed the state-owned utility, which is overseen by a board of directors, to move more conservatively on solar, he said. If the nuclear plant had been built, Santee Cooper also would have had more than enough capacity to meet customer demand, lessening the utility’s desire to develop other power sources like solar, he said.
Still, Santee Cooper could expand solar if it wanted to, he said.
“If the management and Board of Directors of Santee want to build solar in the manner being done by SCE&G and Duke, they could do so,’’ Clark said. “Apparently, management and board members have seen solar as a low priority.”
Solar expansion is a big issue at the Legislature this year. A bill before the Senate would allow new customers of Duke and SCE&G who install rooftop solar panels to get the same favorable rates the state has been giving solar customers since many restrictions on sun power expansion were eased in 2014. The new legislation lifts caps imposed by the 2014 law that each company has either reached or is soon to reach.
If the law isn’t changed, utilities could cut the rates they pay new solar customers for excess energy those customers produce from their rooftops. The legislation also would allow large-scale solar developers to get contracts from Duke Energy of 10 years, which industry boosters say is vital to solar expansion in the Upstate and Pee Dee regions. In many cases, Duke has been reluctant to give 10 year contracts.
The bill, however, doesn’t apply to Santee Cooper, which unlike Duke and SCE&G, is not regulated by the PSC because it is a publicly owned utility.
In contrast to Santee Cooper, SCE&G has improved substantially in efforts to expand solar power for customers in its territory, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy report said. The power company, now a division of Dominion Energy of Virginia, has become one of the top power companies in the South for solar in just a year’s time, the report said.
“SCE&G leapt from below the Southeastern regional average in 2017 to nearly double the regional average in 2018,’’ the report said, joining Duke Energy and Georgia Power as the top solar companies. Duke remains far ahead of any other utility, accounting for about half of all the solar installed in the seven-state region made up of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida.
Overall, the alliance’s report forecast continued solar growth in the Southeast, although the amount of growth varied from state to state. South Carolina ranks fourth behind North Carolina, Florida and Georgia in the megawatts of installed solar, the report said. Efforts to increase solar power are far behind in Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Florida is emerging as a solar leader, the report said.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, founded in 1985, is a non-profit organization that studies and advocates renewable energy in the Southeast.