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April 21, 2011

Soak up the sun

Paul Kuperman might have been worried that tapping into eco-friendly energy sources at his home in the Green Lakes section of northern Myrtle Beach would get the neighbors squawking about aesthetics, but he says his solar panels have blended right in.

Paul Kuperman might have been worried that tapping into eco-friendly energy sources at his home in the Green Lakes section of northern Myrtle Beach would get the neighbors squawking about aesthetics, but he says his solar panels have blended right in.

"One of my neighbors didn't even notice they were there for six months," said Kuperman, who had a solar energy system installed for his home through a local company, Solar Energy Pros. "We have had several friends drop by and ask where our panels were when they were looking right at them."

While simultaneously blending in and jumping aboard the green movement, Kuperman is also seeing another type of green - the kind in his wallet - affected.

"It feels good to be helping the environment and I admit to getting a little thrill when the power meter starts running backwards," says Kuperman. "The power is clean with no byproduct. The panels have nothing to re-fill, have a remarkable long and reliable life span, and come with a 30-year warranty." He adds that the best part of ownership is what he doesn't notice. "The thing just works.The lights don't dim when it gets cloudy. The power is exactly the same. The only difference is when the sun is shining it's free."

Kuperman's story is prescient this week as Friday marks the 41st anniversary of Earth Day. Credited with launching the modern environmentalist movement, Earth Day has morphed into an international day of eco-awareness. Events across the globe will focus on educating and encouraging the public on ways to conserve, preserve and maintain our planet's natural resources. One of the major environmental concerns of the 21st century is finding alternative energy sources to supplant our dependence on ozone destroying fossil fuels, and part of protecting the Earth may be mining the incredible and radiant power of the sun.

It's not as far-fetched as you might think.

On Monday, Santee Cooper, South Carolina's state-owned electric and water utility giant, dedicated the state's largest solar power installation, right here on the Grand Strand. With more than 1,300 solar panels installed on various Santee Cooper-owned properties throughout the city of Myrtle Beach, the new Grand Strand Solar station will take advantage of a clean, renewable energy source our 60 miles of sand and surf has in abundance - the sun.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the sun gives off more energy in one hour than is consumed by the entire planet in a year. Solar energy reduces harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, while development of solar power promises to stimulate the nation's economic recovery by capitalizing on a domestically-produced, natural energy resource. Capturing, converting and storing solar power is a $7.5 billion industry growing by 35-40 percent annually, and it only makes sense that the so-called "Sun Fun City" get in on the action. As local government, commercial and residential consumers embrace technological advances in harvesting solar energy - while taking advantage of Department of Energy incentives and tax credits to offset the cost - the sun is rising as a dependable green technology.

Native suns

Dan Evans is the owner of Solar Energy Pros in Garden City Beach and a subcontractor on the Santee Cooper solar station installation. Evans points out that in terms of solar power, South Carolina - and the Grand Strand in particular - has as much solar potential the sunny climes of Florida or California. "The technology is improving, the price is improving, the tax incentives - there's a lot of things happening with solar, and by not taking advantage of it, people are missing out on a good opportunity."

According to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), a non-profit association of solar industry providers and advocates, solar power is taking its place as a major player in the renewable energy industry. According to the ASES, more than nine million jobs and $1 trillion in annual revenue have been generated in the country by the renewable energy and energy efficiency sector. Bruce Wood is Chairperson of the South Carolina Solar Energy Council, the state chapter of the ASES, Founder of the South Carolina Solar Business Alliance, and owner of Sunstore Solar, based in Greer. Wood has been involved with solar advocacy and contracting in the Carolinas for 30 years, and is the main contractor on Santee Cooper's Grand Strand Solar Station Project. "Santee Cooper has come a long way in working with renewable energy, and they've displayed a lot of leadership," says Wood. "We worked with them to design, secure funding for and now to build the installation, and we'll continue to be there to help with operations for the next five years." Wood takes a practical, hands-on approach when working on residential, commercial or public projects. "We design it, put it together and make it work like it's supposed to," he says. "We take a high-tech item and a low-tech approach, looking at what our customer is trying to accomplish, what their needs are and then we work to find what best suits it."

With incentives from the DOE and tax breaks available through the American Recovery Act of 2009, Wood says the cost of installing solar equipment is lower than ever. A 30 percent federal tax credit and a 25 percent South Carolina state tax credit means more than 50 percent of the money a consumer invests to install solar energy comes right off the top.

As researchers project demand for electricity to double by the year 2050 and triple by the end of the century, the DOE is working with state public utility commissions to keep up. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act , more than $16.8 billion has been earmarked for development of sustainable energy and modernizing the nation's outdated energy infrastructure. Once modernized by the technological advances of the Information Age, such as microprocessors, computing and advances in telecommunications, what's known as the Smart Grid promises to deliver sustainable, cost efficient, domestically-produced electricity. While there are no federal or state mandates on implementing solar power, awareness of its potential benefits is growing. "At this time, South Carolina does not have a set timetable or plan for increasing solar energy in the state, " says Rebecca Griggs, Public Outreach Coordinator for the South Carolina Energy Office (SCEO). "The majority of the solar installations documented within the SC Energy Office's SC Solar Inventory have been performed voluntarily by customer-generators. So far we have documented well over 600 installations since the 1970s."

Incentives for change

At Solar Energy Pros, Evans says tax incentives combined with low interest rate financing have resulted in an increase in business. "Anybody who has Santee Cooper as an electric provider qualifies for up to $40,000 to install solar, payable over 10 years with a 1.25 interest rate, and almost everybody along the Grand Strand has access to solar energy," says Evans. He urges area homeowners to at least consider installing solar hot water, which costs $6,500-$7,500 to install, can be financed by Santee Cooper and is eligible for federal and state tax credits, bringing the cost to $3,000-$4,000. "Once people understand, when you combine the tax breaks and the benefits of solar with energy saving measures, it takes a big chunk out of the electric bill," says Evans. "When you factor in the inevitable rate increases, customers can see payback on their investment in as early as five years."

Evans says his company offers a "Green Starter Package," which costs roughly $16,000, and is a good example of how fast the payback can be. The Green Starter kit includes photovoltaic solar panels, which convert radiation from the sun into energy, in addition to thermal solar, which captures and magnifies the sun's rays for heating water and homes. A radiant barrier in the ceiling, akin to a foil blanket which blocks the sun's radiation, keeps the attic, therefore the whole house, cooler. Says Evans, "Of the $16,000 invested, you get over half back through the tax credits, and half through the energy savings you get."

Other local entrepreneurs, such as architect Robin Roberts, owner of the Palmetto Group, see the business opportunities in solar power, too. Roberts is a solar energy advocate who has worked for several years to make solar power more affordable for local businesses. "The hurdle has always been the cost and the long term payoff," says Roberts. His company has an attractive plan that can save local businesses money, while promoting the use of solar energy. "Essentially what we do is lease the roof tops from the building owners so we can construct a solar power station. Then we sell the energy produced back to the building owner at a rate which is significantly less than the local utility would sell them equivalent power for, thereby generating instant savings," says Roberts. "There is no cost to the building owner to have the solar system installed, just a commitment to buy the power from us." As a small business owner, Roberts has been on the forefront in advocating solar power in the area. "We've created a viable economic model which is very attractive to investors, especially those who are into green technologies."

Diversifying energy portfolio

The $1.3 million Grand Strand Solar Station is the latest in Santee Cooper's efforts at diversifying South Carolina's energy portfolio with renewable resources through its Green Power program. According to Mollie Gore, Public Relations Director for Santee Cooper, the utility generates 28 megawatts of power from renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind energy and solar energy, which it sells in blocks at $3 per 100 kilowatt-hours. (A kilowatt hour is the amount of electricity a 100-watt light bulb would use in one hour - 100 kilowatt hours would power the same bulb for 1,000 hours.) The money generated through the Green Power program is reinvested in developing more opportunities for clean, sustainable energy for the state, such as the new solar installation off Mr. Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach. "The Grand Strand Solar Station helps diversify Santee Cooper's generating portfolio and increases our renewable generation. It also builds awareness and helps educators and other stakeholders learn more by observing actual performance," says Gore. "It is the state's largest solar installation and so will give us a clearer idea of how dependable solar energy is and how well the panels generate power in varying conditions."

Santee Cooper launched the state's first Green Power solar installation site in 2006 on Coastal Carolina University's Conway campus. Four bus stop shelters along the campus' Chanticleer Drive were equipped with solar panels capable of producing 16 kilowatts of electricity. As the latest installation, the Grand Strand Solar Station will increase the state's meager solar energy production by 50 percent. Approximately 250 kilowatts worth of rooftop solar panels have been mounted on the utility's Myrtle Beach Service Center, Warehouse and Technical Services buildings in Myrtle Beach, with another 60 kilowatts coming from ground-mounted solar arrays. "The panels are rated at a total capacity of 311 kilowatts - that is how much electricity they can produce in optimal conditions, "says Gore. Optimal conditions mean daylight and full sun, meaning the panels won't be generating at night or on the Grand Strand's occasional cloudy day. "Electricity needs don't go away at night. We need other generation available as backup for those times when the solar panels aren't delivering full capacity, or when they aren't delivering any capacity because it's nighttime." This "other generation" comes from the sustainable, Earth-friendly power generated through the Green Power program, as well as the more traditional sources such as nuclear and coal, which make up the bulk of the state's energy production.

While the solar installation provides only a fraction of the electricity needed to supply businesses and residents - roughly enough to power 30 average homes, according to Santee Cooper President and CEO Lonnie Carter - it's a step in the right direction. Says Gore, "We will be able to track real output and use that data to help evaluate the viability of other potential solar projects down the road." The cost for the solar station is $1.3 million, and Santee Cooper used money from a variety of sources, including dipping into its operating budget. "We are using a $475,000 grant from the South Carolina Energy Office to help pay for it. Another $500,000 is from our own Green Power program," says Gore. "Solar power is still expensive compared to traditional generation, about 5 or 6 times more expensive. It will take innovative financing partnerships to continue building these kinds of renewable projects."

One of those partnerships has been with electric cooperatives throughout the state to launch 20 Green Power Solar Schools. Myrtle Beach Middle School is the latest to be added to the list. Each Green Power Solar School receives a 2 kilowatt solar energy system, a renewable energy curriculum which meets the state's Board of Education science requirements, and an Internet-based monitoring system providing data on the amount of solar energy the school is generating. The monitoring system also enables each school to connect and compare with other solar schools throughout the state and country.

In addition to money generated from the Green Power Program, part of the funding for projects such as the Grand Strand Solar Station and Green Power Solar Schools comes through the U.S. Department of Energy. As part of the DOE's Smart Grid 2030 plan to overhaul the nation's electric grid system, solar power is a key component in constructing a modern, 21st century system that moves away from dependence on harmful fossil fuels and imported energy. According to DOE reports, the current grid, with its aging infrastructure and reliance on carbon producing fuels such as coal and oil, is woefully inadequate in terms of meeting the nation's increasing demand for electricity.

Outlook not completely sunny

While Santee Cooper has made strides in diversifying its energy portfolio, solar energy advocates would like to see the utility enact better net metering, which allows residents with solar installations to sell the extra power their systems generate back to the power company. The extra electricity generated by residentially-produced solar power benefits Santee Cooper by supplying clean power to the electric grid at a peak time - midday. "Right now any energy that I produce and don't consume,Santee Cooper is getting for free," says Kuperman. The current net metering plan has a low pay rate and the utility company has plans to tack on a so-called "usage fee" for its buy back program. In Kuperman's case, the usage fee would amount to 65 percent of his electric bill. "This is in stark contrast to states like North Carolina where the power company pays a premium for the extra power," he says. "My electric bill would actually be higher if I tried to sell the power back, so I end up just giving it away to them."

While making the switch from traditional carbon producing fuels to domestically-produced, sustainable resources requires an investment of time and money, it's an investment that promises to pay off in the long run. Says Kuperman, "Look at Denmark. Just 30 years ago they imported 99 percent of their oil. Now they don't import any. "

Meanwhile, Evans sees our area's potential in harnessing solar power - and laments that while there's been some new progress, we're way behind. "Our state has so much potential, yet all these other states are way ahead of us in terms of solar energy production," he says . In order to stay competitive with other states, Evans says there needs to be more public education about the opportunities and benefits solar presents, as well as the need to push for more competitive state incentives for those willing to invest in solar energy. "People really need to make some noise to the state legislature, as well as to the governor," says Evans. "Our shortcoming here is complacency."

Recently, more than 50 solar-based business owners from throughout South Carolina converged on the state capitol in support of two pieces of legislation designed to kick start the widespread use of solar among Palmetto State businesses. House Bill 3346 and Senate Bill 474 would provide tax incentives for businesses to install solar power on their commercial properties. Evans says in his business, he sees virtually no commercial interest from the many resorts and attractions in the area. He says one of the issues is getting these businesses to make the initial investment in solar power, and the bills passing through the General Assembly would offer tax incentives to make installing solar more attractive. "We've got some of the lowest incentives in the country," says Evans. Similar incentives have worked in North Carolina, which recently installed a 17.2 megawatt solar energy farm which will generate enough solar energy to power 2,600 homes. Evans also cites North Carolina's higher state tax incentive to residents who install solar energy systems to their homes, a 30 percent tax break versus South Carolina's 25 percent.

Wood, President of the SC Solar Energy Council, urges people to call their state legislators in support of the bills. Wood says the tax breaks do not increase residential energy rates and will not cost the state money. What it will do is allow businesses to keep more of their tax dollars, as well as stimulate the local economy by keeping federal tax dollars within South Carolina. Says Wood, "These incentives have worked in North Carolina and Georgia to create a fast-growing, job-creating solar industry." says Wood. "With all that is going on in the world, these bills would reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources and bring jobs to the state. When you factor in the environmental issues involved, it's just the right thing to do."

As the days get longer and the beaches beckon, there's no better time to sharpen your eco-awareness. The environmental movement and the need for domestically produced energy continue to revolutionize our state, and recent advances in wind and solar energy put the Grand Strand at the center of the revolution. For many Grand Strand residents who support alternative energy, the price of investing in new technology is offset by the benefits. "My wife and I think it's important to teach our kids about conservation and the environment," says Kuperman. "If you want to get things done you need to be involved. We owe it to our children to try and reduce our impact on the planet."

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