By Kevin F. Langston and reprinted with permission from PowerSource, Spring 2014, a publication of Santee Cooper
It was a sunny, although blustery, Jan. 24 in Walterboro when a crowd huddled inside a warm tent to dedicate the 3-megawatt Colleton Solar Farm.
Its 10,010-photovoltaic panels were generating 2.3 MW of renewable energy, which helped to power the event and heat some homes in the area.
The Colleton Solar Farm represents a collaboration that includes Santee Cooper, Central Electric Power Cooperative, The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, TIG Sun Energy, The InterTech Group, Colleton County and the city of Walterboro.
Santee Cooper, in collaboration with Central and the electric cooperatives, is purchasing the total energy output, which is enough to power more than 300 homes. It is forecasted to generate approximately 4,468 megawatt-hours of electricity in 2014.
The facility rests on a footprint of 14.27 acres and requires 43.5 miles of wire — enough to reach downtown Charleston from the solar farm. Sixty percent of its solar panels (or 1.8 MW) are fixed, while 40 percent (1.2 MW) are single-axis tracking panels that follow the sun’s movement across the sky. The tracking panels cost more to install but can generate about 20 percent more electricity than fixed panels. The intent was to include both models to evaluate capacity against higher costs.
The Colleton Solar Farm was built in 57 days.
“This project came together in rapid time,” said Grant Reeves, senior vice president of The InterTech Group, which owns TIG Sun Energy. “It was in September of last year that the electric cooperatives and Santee Cooper jointly pursued the construction of a new solar farm. A purchase-power agreement was signed on September 25, TIG Sun Energy was awarded the construction contract on October 7, and the project was placed on the grid on December 20. That was a lot of work done in a short amount of time.”
The project needed to be completed before the end of the year in order to qualify for accelerated depreciation under federal tax rules that were set to expire. Such financial incentives were essential in lowering the overall cost of electricity delivered to Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives.
“This solar farm came in on time and under budget,” said Leighton Lord, chairman of the Santee Cooper Board of Directors. “As the first-generation project I had to approve as chairman, that was wonderful.”
Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives had some very specific goals when they set about developing the Colleton Solar Farm. Highest among them was to learn from it.
“This project is important to Santee Cooper because we want to better understand solar power,” Lord said. “Our Green Power Solar Schools program is one way we’ve been studying solar power for several years, but we’ve never had anything of this scale to study. We want to do solar power right. Grid reliability is paramount, and we cannot jeopardize that. We must also introduce solar power onto our system in a way that’s fair to all of our customers. We’re ready, but we’re going to get the reliability right and the fairness right, and the Colleton Solar Farm is going to help us get there.”
“The timing is right for this project,” said Larry Hinz, president and CEO of Coastal Electric Cooperative, and chairman of the board of trustees of Central Electric Power Cooperative. “We’ve heard from cooperative members who are interested in solar energy. Now, it’s our turn to develop a consumer-friendly product that makes solar power available in a reliable and economically sustainable way. This project gives us a tremendous opportunity to learn how we can make solar successful in South Carolina.”
Santee Cooper and the cooperatives also sought to increase the access to indigenous sources of electricity in South Carolina, to use South Carolina companies in the construction of the solar farm, to encourage private investment in solar photovoltaic technology, to evaluate the solar rate structure, and to evaluate how to construct these solar farms efficiently.
Before the Colleton Solar Farm, the largest solar installation on the Santee Cooper system was the 311-kilowatt Grand Strand Solar Station in Myrtle Beach. Santee Cooper has been pioneering solar power in South Carolina since 2006 when the 16-kW display at Coastal Carolina University was the first Green Power solar site dedicated in the state. Two additional 20-kW displays reside at the Center for Hydrogen Research in Aiken and the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Bluffton.
Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives also have established more than 20 Green Power Solar Schools in the state, providing 2-kW panels and educational material that allows sixth graders a hands-on learning experience with solar.
The Colleton Solar Farm continues a commitment by Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives to grow renewable energy sources throughout South Carolina — a commitment that reaches back to 2001 when they dedicated the first Green Power Generating Station in Horry County. Today, they work together to deliver more than 681 MW of renewable energy from sources like hydro, biomass and landfill biogas, solar and wind.
“Santee Cooper is responsible for more renewable power being placed onto the grid than any other utility in the state,” Lord said. “I’m thrilled to be part of a utility with such a commitment to renewable power.”
The Colleton Solar Farm was one of the first projects Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives pursued after signing an extension to the Central Coordination Agreement earlier in 2013. The long-term, unprecedented agreement was designed in part to usher in a new era of cooperation between Santee Cooper and the cooperatives.
“This has been a great example of what we can do and how teamwork on this scale is the future of electric generation,” Lord said. “It’s hard to do it by yourself, but it’s easy to do it with partners. The electric cooperatives are great partners.”
“I want to commend the electric cooperatives and Santee Cooper’s leadership in bringing this first-in-the-state, utility-scale project to fruition,” said Anita Zucker, CEO of The InterTech Group. “This project will provide valuable economic and operational experience for future solar installations. It is my belief and hope that the Colleton Solar Farm will be the first of many more solar developments in South Carolina.”