Colleton Solar Farm: South Carolina’s largest

South Carolina’s largest solar farm generated 5% more power than planned in its first year (2014), and demonstrated that tracking mounts provide more power in the late afternoon at peak air conditioning use time. It took only nine weeks to build, far faster than any pipeline or nuclear project, and you could build enough of these solar farms to produce more energy in less time than it would take just to permit either of those, much less build them. However, Santee Cooper could do better about enabling others to install and connect solar power. Right now, Santee Cooper is making even Duke Energy look good.

Santee Cooper, 24 January 2014, South Carolina’s largest solar farm introduced to the public,

The Colleton Solar Farm, the largest facility of its kind in the state, is producing electricity just nine weeks after construction began on the project. Utility and solar industry executives officially dedicated the solar array during a ceremony Friday afternoon in Walterboro.

TIG Sun Energy, a subsidiary of the North Charleston-based InterTech Group, is the owner and operator of the Colleton Solar Farm. Santee Cooper, in collaboration with Central Electric Power Cooperative and the state’s electric cooperatives, are purchasing the total energy output of the farm and studying data about the costs and integration of utility-scale solar power.

Santee Cooper selected TIG Sun Energy as the solar farm contractor on Oct. 7, 2013. Construction on the 14-acre site began a week later. The farm officially began producing power on Dec. 20. The solar array consists of 10,010 photovoltaic panels. Some panels are fixed while other panels follow the direction of the sun to maximize the production of solar energy.

Here it is being built:


Building Colleton Solar Farm
Video by SCLivingMagazine, 7 January 2014, Walterboro, SC

Here is the dedication:

Dedication of Colleton Solar Farm
Video by Santee Cooper TV, Walterboro, South Carolina

Santee Cooper, 29 January 2015, Solar Farm Yields Good Lessons in First Year,

In its first year of operation, the Colleton Solar Farm produced slightly more solar power than expected and demonstrated the benefits of panels that track the sun, even though they cost more than stationary panels. Also, the severity of Winter Storm Pax last February highlighted the issue of the reliability of solar power to meet winter energy demands after the storm took the farm offline for three days.

The first full day of operation for the Colleton Solar Farm was December 21, 2013. In its first year, through December 20, 2014, the 15-acre site generated 4,687 megawatt-hours (MWh), which was 5 percent more than expected in year one. That extra energy is enough to power more than 1,200 light bulbs (60 watts) for eight hours a day. All told, the 3-megawatt complex provides enough energy to power more than 300 homes.

Data also indicates that tracking panels that follow the sun generate power for about 3 ½ hours longer than the fixed panels during the longest days of summer. Nearly two hours of that time is electricity delivered during the afternoon peak of power demand.

The solution to the storm issue is well known: distribute power enough that not everything is in the one storm’s path, and so not everything is one type of power source, as in wind generates more during storms. See Andy Brock, Statehouse Report, 27 November 2015, Wind energy could bring big payoff to state.

For what Colleton Solar farm is generating right now, see its live data.

And for a bit of what Santee Cooper didn’t mention in its press releases above, see Sammy Fretwell, The Herald, 27 November 2015, SC utility involved in solar dust-up,

Hamilton Davis, energy director for the [S.C. Coastal Conservation League], said Santee Cooper’s plan “runs counter” to what other power companies are doing in South Carolina. SCE&G and Duke have more customer friendly plans, he said.

Davis said the Santee Cooper plan has a number of problems, including:

  • Extra charges on sun-powered homes for the use of utility lines, power poles and other costs.
  • Poor rates for extra solar power that homes produce and sell back to the power grid. Santee Cooper charges residential customers about 11 cents per kilowatt hour to buy energy. But the company would buy back excess solar power for substantially less.

While Santee Cooper’s incentives package could offset some of those costs, Davis said it’s so complex few people will bother to use it. As a result, rooftop solar for businesses and homeowners won’t expand the way it should, he said.

“It is insanely complicated,” Davis said of the solar incentive plan. “Nobody is going to use this. From a customer perspective, this is almost impenetrable.”

In addition to the conservation league, industry groups such as The Alliance for Solar Choice, a national organization, have expressed reservations about the Santee Cooper plan.

What does Santee Cooper mean by “substantially less”? 4 cents per kilowatt hour to the solar energy generator. David Wren, Post and Courier, 4 December 2015, Rate increase, solar buyback program on Santee Cooper board’s agenda,

In addition, the board is scheduled to vote on a solar initiative that conservation groups say doesn’t go far enough to promote usage of the alternative energy source. The proposal would credit customers less than 4 cents per kilowatt hour for excess solar power they generate and sell back to Santee Cooper. Gore said that amount is what it otherwise would cost the utility to generate the electricity.

Ah, the old “avoided cost” argument. Which doesn’t take into account what the utility saves in less wear on its power lines due to much of the solar generation being used locally, nor delayed financing due to later (if ever) need to deploy new conventional generation, as both Austin, Texas and Minnesota discovered with a little research.

And by 4 cents Santee Cooper really meant 3.8 cents, plus some extra charges. David Wren, Post and Courier, 7 December 2015, Santee Cooper board takes up rate hike, solar program, Century Aluminum impasse,

The utility’s plan credits customers with 3.8 cents per kilowatt hour for excess solar power they generate and sell back to Santee Cooper. Mollie Gore, the utility’s spokeswoman, said that amount is what it otherwise would cost the utility to generate the electricity.

Those taking part in the program must pay a $2-per-month metering fee and a standby charge of between $4.40 and $4.70 per kilowatt per month. The standby charge covers the cost of the infrastructure needed so customers can access the grid, Gore said.

Come on, Santee Cooper: there’s enough sunlight to go around, and you can’t farm it all yourself. So far, as these David Wren stories note, you’re making Duke Energy, which does net metering one to one on solar power purchase price, look good.