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Columbia Business Monthly

The solar industry is booming in the Palmetto State, but perhaps nowhere is the market as hot as it is in Orangeburg

Feb 04, 2019 11:47AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dan McCue

Drive far enough on Interstate 26 between Charleston and Columbia and suddenly, the future is everywhere. Large, mostly flat expanses extend out intermittently on either side of the highway, broken up only by stands of Carolina pine, oak, and maples.

For years, most in the economic development community saw such stretches as opportunities for vertical development. A warehouse here, a factory there, the thinking went, and soon the community in which the land lay would be reaping the benefits of a new source of tax revenue and job creation.

However, that thinking has evolved in recent years as people have become more aware and accepting of the concept of climate change and the costs associated with renewable sources of energy, particularly solar power, have dramatically decreased.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, as of the end of last year the state of South Carolina is home to 15,995 solar power installations, producing 616.1 megawatts of energy annually and employing more than 2,800 people.

In the past year, the epicenter for much of this activity has been Orangeburg, where solar farm developers have committed to investing more than $298 million on facilities that will eventually produce an additional 310 megawatts of clean—and affordable—power. 

Two of these developers are Kansas-based Tradewind Energy and California-based Cypress Creek Renewables, both of whom have announced major installations that are now under construction.

Last February, Tradewind unveiled its plans to build an $89 million solar facility on 1,000 acres of land south of the town of Bowman.

Projected to be operational by early 2020, the 75 megawatt solar farm—Tradewind's second in Orangeburg County—will generate enough power for 15,000 homes.

Its other project, an $84.5 million solar farm sitting on 500 acres off the Bowman-Branch Highway, is also expected to be completed in 2020, and will generate about the same amount of power.

Cypress Creek Renewables rolled out its solar plans for Orangeburg County a little earlier than Tradewind, announcing its project in December 2017.

In fact, the $115 million the company said it would spend on the 75-megawatt facility on 550 acres on S.C. Highway 210 was the eighth largest capital investment announcement in the state in 2017. That solar farm is currently on course to be completed by the summer.

"In South Carolina, Cypress Creek has developed 20 operational solar projects to date, and the way they typically work is this," explains Jeff Mckay, the company's spokesman. "We look for underutilized farmland to either lease or buy, and a critical consideration for us is that it be in direct proximity to a pre-existing utility line.

"Once we find such a property, we go in and negotiate a power-purchase agreement with the local utility—in South Carolina, in most cases, that's an entity like Duke Energy or South Carolina Electric & Gas—and then once we've developed the site, they dispense the power to the local homes and businesses in the area," McKay says.

"We consider South Carolina one of several states that has a healthy appetite for solar energy," he adds.

"Solar is now cheaper than it’s ever been, and it's actually the lowest-cost form of energy currently available," McKay continues. "So you get all the warm fuzzies of being good for the environment, while at the same time providing energy that's cheaper for the consumer."

He went on to estimate that Cypress Creek's activities on the solar energy front to date have stimulated a total $400 million in investment within the state, and that each facility promises a steady stream of tax revenue—in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—for the community for a period of 20 to 30 years. 

And that dollars and cents reality is one reason communities across South Carolina and across the United States today are competing for solar farms the way they've long competed for other economic development projects.

In order to advance the Cypress Creek and Tradewind projects, the Orangeburg County Council approved fee-in-lieu of taxes incentives for the developers, and also agreed to place the projects in a joint industrial park with Dorchester County.

This joint country industrial park is a paper entity. There is no actual park; it's simply a mechanism designed to provide project developers with additional incentives. 

After the vote, County Council Chairman Johnnie Wright Sr. said making the incentives available to the developers shows Orangeburg's commitment to working with companies "that provide reliable and increasingly cleaner sources of energy."

Justin McGeeney, Tradewind Energy's senior development manager, agrees, noting in a written statement that the community has been "very welcoming" to solar energy.

"We appreciate all the work of Orangeburg County and the State of South Carolina for helping create new opportunities for economic development through the Bowman Solar Project," McGeeney said.

Of course, private companies aren't the only entities developing solar farms in Orangeburg County. Santee Cooper is in the process of permitting a new facility, to be called the Jamison Solar Farm, at the intersection of Interstate 26 and U.S. Highway 601.

The solar farm is being built as part of an industrial park being developed by Tri-County Electric Cooperative. Funding for the project is supplied in large part by green power funds.

Nicole Aiello, Santee Cooper's director of public relations, explained that green power funds are raised directly through solar power adoption.

"When customers from Santee Cooper and the state’s electric cooperatives voluntarily purchase green power, we reinvest that revenue into new or expanded sources of renewable energy," she says.

Orangeburg County is not alone in fostering the solar farm industry. The first one in the state was built in Colleton County on property owned by Coastal Electric Cooperative in 2013.

The 3-megawatt solar farm, which is comprised of some 10,010 solar panels and covers 14 acres, is owned by TIG Sun Energy, a division of The InterTech Group, under contract with Santee Cooper. 

Aiello said through Santee Cooper's Solar Share program—the state's first community solar program—customers can subscribe to portions of the Colleton Solar Farm's output and receive rebates and monthly energy credits without putting solar on their roofs. 

"This helps customers whose roofs are not suitable for solar, or for those who have no roofs of their own, like renters or customers who live in condominiums," she says.

In April 2018, Santee Cooper announced it had begun generating electricity at its new Bell Bay Solar Farm. 

Unlike the Colleton Solar Farm, which was erected on property set aside for industrial development, the Bell Bay facility, which serves the Grand Strand, was built on former agricultural land that had been on the market for several years before the utility bought it.

The Bell Bay Solar Farm produces about 2 megawatts of power, generated by 5,904 solar panels. Its innovative design includes technology to tilt the solar panels to take full advantage of the afternoon summer sun, when customers on the Grand Strand use the most electricity.

Santee Cooper has another project, called the Runway Solar Farm, under review by the city of Myrtle Beach’s Community Appearance Board. 

"The unique aspect of this proposed solar farm is that it’s located on Myrtle Beach International Airport land that cannot be used for other purposes," Aiello says. "Generally speaking, many airports have extensive unusable property, often close to load centers, that could be used for solar farms. 

"Of course, special studies are required to ensure that there is no glint or glare from the panels that would affect pilots or tower personnel," she says.

As for the future of solar farm development in the state, it appears the growth of the sector here will only continue.

Aiello says, "We get approximately one call per week from someone who has land they would like for Santee Cooper to develop into a solar farm, and we're actively looking for solar opportunities.”