Duke Energy urged to develop massive solar farm

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 25, 2013 

Renewable power boosters are pushing Duke Energy to build what could become the country’s largest solar farm in a rural corner of the Upstate.

But the power company is cool to the idea, suggesting the scope of the project is unrealistic.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy recently asked the state Public Service Commission to require that Duke add up to 375 megawatts of solar capacity as it develops a new natural gas plant in Anderson County.

In documents filed earlier this month with the PSC, conservation groups said a combination of solar and natural gas would better serve customers and protect the environment than relying solely on burning gas.

Few solar farms proposed in the U.S. would be as large as the one advocated by the conservation groups, according to statistics provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

The largest solar plant now operating is in Arizona. The facility is just under 300 megawatts, although others are planned that would rival the one the league and the alliance support, solar statistics show.

Documents filed by environmental groups with the PSC do not show how much a 375-megawatt solar farm would cost or how many homes it would serve. But the 280-megawatt Gila Bend, Ariz., plant cost about $2 billion to build. That plant generates enough electricity to serve about 70,000 homes, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Solar advocates say they want Duke, one of the country’s major power suppliers, to add solar capacity when it builds a major 750-megawatt natural gas plant, projected for construction in the next five years.

The modern gas plant would be in the same area as a 62-year-old coal-fired power station along the Saluda River. The W.S. Lee steam station is shifting away from coal as Duke moves to natural gas, which has a lesser environmental impact than coal. Blan Holman, an attorney for the environmental groups, said the main thing they are seeking is the expansion of solar power as Duke develops natural gas, even if their proposal for a 375-megawatt sun farm is scaled back.

Not only would solar diversify Duke’s energy sources, but it “would have economic development benefits in the form of jobs and business development in South Carolina,” according to testimony filed by the conservation league and the alliance Dec. 10 with the PSC.

Solar is an increasingly popular form of producing energy nationally because the sun’s rays are free. Solar panels that soak up the sun do not release greenhouse gases, like those produced at natural gas and coal-fired power plants. Nor do they produce other forms of air pollution.

Getting a huge solar plant approved, however, is questionable in a state where power companies in the past have been reluctant to embrace renewable energy and where much smaller solar farms are just getting established.

South Carolina only this month has seen completion of the state’s first solar farm, a 3-megawatt site developed for Santee Cooper between Columbia and Charleston. SCE&G plans to develop up to five solar farms, including at least one near Columbia, to generate about 20 megawatts of electricity. Duke, which serves the northwest and north central portions of South Carolina, has made no such announcement for a solar farm in the Palmetto State.

Duke’s response to the proposal said the company would need more than 2,600 acres to establish a solar farm of the size conservationists proposed. In comparison, the company would need only 20 acres for its proposed natural gas plant. Solar also would not provide as much energy as the natural gas plant, according to Duke.

“It is unclear why CCL and SACE believe the Anderson, S.C., area is a likely spot” for one of the country’s biggest solar farms, according to testimony filed with the PSC by Duke’s Janice D. Hager.

Company spokesman Ryan Mosier said Duke isn’t ready to endorse adding solar to the new natural gas plant in Anderson County. Still, the company wants to increase its use of solar power in South Carolina, he said.

“I can’t speculate,” he said. “I can say that from a solar perspective our company is looking at a number of options, sites and projects in South Carolina as we speak. There is nothing definite on that but we are definitely looking at expanding the solar footprint in South Carolina.”

In addition to seeking the solar farm, environmentalists have filed a formal request with the PSC seeking to push back the opening of the Duke gas plant until 2018, a year later than the company would open the power station. Environmentalists say Duke doesn’t need the energy in 2017.

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