It was only last October that we ran a list of five overlooked solar growth markets in the US, and now it look’s like we’ll have to add a sixth one. South Carolina has been lagging far behind other states in large scale solar farming but if a new announcement from Canadian Solar is any indication, the floodgates are now open.
The Canadian Solar announcement caught our eye because, although the dateline is May 27 (as in, this morning), the subject is the company’s contribution to a South Carolina solar farm that his been up and running since last December. Now, why would Canadian Solar go out of its way to draw attention to its early foothold in the South Carolina solar market at this particular moment?
The South Carolina Solar Market And Fossil Fuels
Let’s start with the basics of the South Carolina solar market. The state really has gained a reputation as a notoriously anti-solar state, partly due to the influence of the Republican-dominated fossil fuel lobbying organization ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). ALEC has a powerful influence on federal and state legislation, particularly so in South Carolina where it enjoys its own, named exemption to state lobbying laws.
You can’t blame the whole thing on ALEC, though. Strong leadership in either party can make all the difference. Just look at the renewable energy growth in Arizona, where Republican Governor Jan Brewer has aggressively pushed solar tech, or Kansas [update: see comment thread for following correction], where Republican Governor Sam Brownback has advocated for wind, and then of course there’s Iowa, where Senator Chuck Grassley has been a longtime (long, long) supporter of wind energy.
What Kansas, Iowa, Arizona, and South Carolina have in common is a relative lack of in-state fossil fuel resources, so the emerging availability of renewable energy as a local resource for state economies should be a no-brainer.
There is a another clue as to why renewables have lagged in South Carolina, in the US Energy Information Agency report dated March 27, 2014.
South Carolina is heavily invested in expensive nuclear energy, with four plants already supplying 57 percent of the state’s net electricity generation and two new reactors under construction.
While the new plants could help the state shed its reliance on imported coal (according to EIA, South Carolina electricity generators got 49 percent of their coal from Kentucky alone), those nuclear dollars would be threatened by new investment in low-cost solar power — to say nothing of the state’s as-yet untapped, massive offshore wind power resources, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.
South Carolina did get about five percent of its energy from renewable sources in 2013 but about half of that was from existing hydroelectric sources.
Meanwhile, per capita retail sales of electricity in South Carolina are greater than the national median, which EIA attributes to heavy use of AC in summer and electric heat in winter.
The Solar Growth Market In South Carolina
At least as of the March 2014 report, EIA did not see much potential in the state’s solar growth. Here’s EIA’s recap of major non-fossil energy resources in the state:
…The state has no fossil fuel reserves or production but does have some renewable resources. South Carolina’s system of rivers and lakes provides substantial hydroelectric power generation potential. The wood waste from the state’s forests and the associated mills provides significant amounts of biomass. Landfill gas and municipal solid waste provide additional biomass resources.
…Other renewable resources in South Carolina are not significant. The state does not have appreciable wind energy resource potential, but manufacturers and assemblers of wind turbine components have located in the state. Solar resources are modest…
Those EIA reports could look very different in short order, partly because a bi-partisan bill in support of growing the solar industry has finally been working its way through the South Carolina legislature.
The Colleton Solar Farm
Even if the bill fails or is watered down, the Canadian Solar project could still have a significant on solar growth in South Carolina.
The new (well, not so new) solar farm, located near the town of Walterboro, is the largest ground-mounted solar installation in South Carolina. It consists of more than 10,000 Canadian Solar CS6X-300P “Max Power” photovoltaic modules.
The facility is owned and operated by TIG Energy I, LLC, which is a member of The InterTech Group, Inc., and the electricity goes to the major South Carolina power company Santee Cooper.
With a capacity of 2.5 MW, the Colleton solar farm is actually not the largest single solar installation in South Carolina. That honor goes to a rooftop array at the new Boeing facility in the state, which last we heard topped out at 2.6 MW.
However, the big difference is that Santee Cooper and its partners are using the Colleton solar farm as a test lab for a new wave of South Carolina solar projects.
The president and CEO of Central Electric Power Cooperative had this to say:
This project is a real-world, full-scale learning tool. The question [electricity] co-ops want to answer is how we can design a consumer-friendly product that makes solar power available to our members in a reliable, affordable and economically sustainable way. We expect to gain a tremendous amount of insight from this installation.
On its part, Santee has positioned the project as one that “raises the bar” on its history of dabbling in non-fossil sources.
Canadian Solar could have had a number of reasons for today’s announcement, but for now let’s just say it doesn’t hurt to give market watchers and state legislators a little nudge to remind them that the solar market is poised for growth in South Carolina.
For the record, those five aforementioned solar growth markets are Minnesota, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and Washington, DC.
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