Fort Mill Times

York Electric Cooperative is taking steps to understand the realities of solar power

Over the past decade, York Electric Cooperative has been slowly moving into “green” or environmentally friendly energy.

In 2004 it started offering members the option of buying green power, electricity generated from renewable resources such as methane gas, the sun or the wind. For an extra $3, members can buy a 100-kilowatt block of green power. The block represents about 10 percent of a typical homeowner’s monthly usage.

Currently green power on the co-op’s system is not coming from renewable resources, but by subscribing to green power, members are encouraging more investment statewide in environmentally friendly power generation, according to the cooperative.

In 2008 the cooperative installed a single, 2-kilowatt solar panel at Springfield Middle School in Fort Mill. The panel generates enough electricity to power about 10 computers on a solar-friendly day. The cooperative also has installed a single panel at Clover Middle School. The panels help students learn about renewable energy.

In 2011 the cooperative offered a solar water heating program.

This year, the cooperative installed four solar panels – generating 8 kilowatts of electricity – outside its offices near Fort Mill. The panels generate enough electricity to meet about half the office’s energy needs. The cooperative, however, is sending the power directly to the electric grid for use.

The four panels, installed on a residential house, typically would provide between 50 and 75 percent of daily power needs.

“We’re slowly getting our feet wet,” said R. Marc Howie, the cooperative’s vice president for community development.

The cooperative has been trying to educate itself and its members about the realities of solar power and to fight the misconceptions. One of the biggest misconceptions, Howie said, is that solar generation is best on a hot, sunny day. The reality is solar panels work best on a crystal clear wintery day when there is no humidity and no clouds, he said.

The cooperative is investigating solar power at members’ requests. Howie said about 25 of the cooperative’s 4,700 accounts have solar panels.

Those with solar power can sell the electricity to the grid through “net metering,” which gives them a modest credit for the power they generate.

Future solar plans could include solar panel installation inspections for members and helping neighborhoods install a small solar “farm” of panels to generate power for amenities such as street lights.

These action, says Bruce Wood of Sunstore Solar Energy of Greer, put the cooperative among the leaders in the state.

Wood is the godfather of solar in South Carolina, having installed systems for the last 30 years.

“Solar power has been a roller coaster,” he admits, but “the sustainable solar power industry has finally been born.”

The technology and the cost finally make sense, he said. And so does the regulatory climate in South Carolina.

The state’s new sustainable energy laws, developed over the past two years, will require private utilities to get 2 percent of their average five-year peak power from the sun. The new law also will eventually allow people to lease solar panels, cutting the upfront costs.

The leasing and net metering provisions should result in more residential and commercial solar power, says state Sen. Greg Gregory of Lancaster, who helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature.

Wood says the numbers make sense now, especially with federal and state tax credits that can cut the cost of a system by more than half. A 10-kilowatt system, more than enough to power most homes, would cost about $40,000, he said. That’s without a backup battery system. Homeowners would be dependent on the electric grid for uninterrupted power.

The result could be more solar homes for the cooperative – and maybe even larger commercial solar farms. In 2012 Santee Cooper, the state’s public power utility, built the Colleton Solar Farm near Walterboro, a 3-megawatt facility with 10,010 solar panels covering 14 acres.

The solar complex provides enough energy to power more than 300 homes.

Wood, who was involved in building the Walterboro solar farm, said construction took 57 days from start to finish. “It was a real eye opener,” he said. “You can have solar power when you want, where you need it.”

With that success in mind, York Electric Cooperative is already getting inquiries from people interested in installing a solar farm in York County, and the cooperative may install a small solar farm of its own at one of its substations.