The push for solar to supply more energy for South Carolina holds great potential in Orangeburg County, which is blessed with lots of land and farmers and developers willing to see it put to use in solar farms.
Even as Central Electric Power Cooperative announced plans to purchase 150 megawatts of solar power from Orangeburg County Solar Project LLC and Orangeburg South Solar Project LLC at Bowman, with Google promising the power will be used at its expanding data center campus in Berkeley County, the solar industry was digesting a decision by the South Carolina Public Service Commission that could put brakes on development.
The PSC has voted to drop the rate major utilities such as Dominion Energy and Duke Energy pay for solar power, leaving South Carolina with one of the lowest rates paid for solar power of any state in the nation. The PSC also decided that utilities do not need to provide contracts longer than 10 years to solar developers, who contend the absence of longer terms will reduce the possibilities of financing for new projects.
The PSC said the decision is about protecting consumers not major utilities. Yet it will leave South Carolina with some of the lowest rates utilities pay for solar power in any state in the nation. And the contract terms also will be among the shortest.
One local lawmaker has been out front in efforts to protect consumers from high power bills. Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, has served as the vice chair of the House Utility Ratepayer Protection Committee and as a member of the Energy Caucus. He was deeply involved in legislative efforts surrounding the S.C. Electric & Gas- Santee Cooper nuclear plan fiasco and was an advocate for reform at Tri-County Cooperative in the wake of scandal involving its board.
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Ott told The Times and Democrat he is still trying to understand the rationale behind the PSC’s decisions. "We were definitely moving in the direction of embracing solar and this appears to be a chilling effect for the industry.”
The bottom line on solar development will be the market, Ott said. "If companies are not able to come in and be able to be profitable, they are not coming.”
The price solar companies can receive for their power and the length of contract will impact development.
Though consumers may see the PSC decisions as good news in controlling the cost of energy, they are not welcome in a county that is being called “the solar capital of South Carolina” with more than 10 farms announced in the past three years. And though Orangeburg County will be left to hope that the PSC has not derailed further development, it can look for a silver lining: If development slows, the farms already in place in Orangeburg County will become more valuable.
But slowing development here is not good news and projects already announced could be delayed or even derailed.
As Orangeburg County Development Commission Executive Director Gregg Robinson told The T&D: There’s no way the change can’t impact future farms.
"It will end up heightening the value of the current farms and it will certainly create a more challenging path for the development of future farms.”