Retired SC minister petitions for solar power

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

From an article in the Charlotte Observer by Sammy Fretwell. The situation for solar in South Carolina is much the same as it is in Wisconsin. Here, we have an example of a citizen fighting back for the right to clean energy:

COLUMBIA, S.C. Wiley Cooper says he was frustrated when an electric utility prevented his church from acquiring a money-saving solar power system last year.
Now, he’s leading a crusade to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

The retired Methodist minister recently launched a petition drive that he hopes will make installing solar panels cheaper and easier for South Carolina churches, homeowners and others. He intends to seek a change in state law when the Legislature returns in January.
“Powerful utilities want you to buy their electricity, not create your own,” Cooper’s petition says. “Let’s change that.”

Cooper already has picked up support. One Columbia legislator said the law needs changing and a fellow minister said it’s “immoral’’ to keep churches and charities from using solar power. Dozens of people have signed the petition since it started several weeks ago.

At issue is a state law that grants power companies exclusive rights to sell energy in their territories. Power companies say any firm wanting to sell solar energy, no matter how small, must be licensed as a utility – an expensive and involved process.

And that’s one reason solar companies that provide free or low-cost solar panels stay clear of South Carolina. These businesses often are paid back by selling power from the panels to the homeowners at a rate they can better afford.

Critics say South Carolina law is a significant barrier to those who want solar energy but can’t afford the upfront expense of buying panels. It can easily cost more than $20,000 to buy solar panels for a private home – more for churches and large buildings. These concerns are among broader questions about the state’s lack of commitment to solar power.

Without high up-front costs, solar panels can save people money on their monthly power bills by reducing the amount of energy needed from the electric company. Typically, folks who use solar panels also receive energy from power companies at night or during rainy periods.

The 69-year-old Cooper, a former S.C. United Way director, said it’s hard to understand why churches in other states can benefit from low-cost solar but the law restricts the practice in South Carolina.

“We need to remove as many barriers as we can,” Cooper said. “You can’t do in South Carolina what is now being done with solar energy in other states.” At least 22 states, mostly in the West and Northeast, allow solar companies to provide free solar panels to homeowners and sell the power directly to them, according to a federally supported database of renewable energy policies. Typically, the monthly amount paid to a solar company for the energy is enough for a property owner to reduce the overall power bill.
None of those states is in the South, where regulation often limits their entry. But some Western states, including Arizona, specifically exempt charities, schools and churches from restrictions that would prevent them from getting free solar panels.

Bruce Wood, chairman of the S.C. Solar Council, said exempting charities and churches might be the most realistic way to resolve the issue in South Carolina.

Joshua Pearce, an energy researcher from Queens University in Canada, said allowing solar companies into states can be critical to the expansion of sun power.

Pearce has analyzed the economics of solar and nuclear policies in North America.
“This is very important,” he said. “The typical homeowner doesn’t have the capital in his bank account to put in a photovoltaic (solar panel) system.”

Cooper’s crusade began a few weeks ago in response to a dispute that erupted last year between SCE&G and a small New England solar company.

DCS Energy Inc. had planned to provide S.C. churches and nonprofits with free solar panels. In return for not charging monthly energy payments, DCS would keep tax incentives and renewable energy credits typically provided to the owners of solar panels. It also would receive federal stimulus money.

But in September 2011, SCE&G filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission, citing state law and contending that DCS Energy should be regulated as a utility.

The solar company then voided about 80 contracts it had in South Carolina and left the state, saying that it didn’t have the resources to fight SCE&G, The State newspaper reported in March. Among those counting on the free panels was Washington Street United Methodist Church, where Cooper worships Sunday mornings.

Cooper said solar power could have helped his church and others cut their power bills, but he also said it would have been better for the environment. Coal plants release mercury, arsenic and carbon dioxide, while nuclear plants produce piles of deadly atomic waste.

Whether Cooper’s petition drive will make a difference may depend on cooperation from the state’s utilities. South Carolina’s power companies and electric cooperatives have a strong team of lobbyists at the State House, and they often are effective at getting their way.

So far, they haven’t expressed much interest in Cooper’s effort.

Utilities complained last year about a solar tax credits bill that they feared would open the door for “third-party sales” of electricity by owner/operators of solar installations, state records show.

SCE&G, which serves the Midlands, declined to discuss possible legislation that would allow third-party sales by solar companies in its territory. But SCE&G did say state law requires any business wanting to sell power in South Carolina to become licensed as a utility, just like power companies.

The company also hinted that allowing solar companies into the state could create confusion among utilities. It would be up to the S.C. Public Service Commission to decide how a solar company operates in the state, SCE&G said. The PSC has never issued a ruling on whether solar power companies are legal in South Carolina.

“Only registered utilities are allowed to sell electricity to retail customers in South Carolina,” the company said in an email to The State. “If multiple utilities were to serve one retail customer, a determination will be needed on which utility, if any, is obligated to provide the reliable (backup) service when the renewable generator under-performs.”

Santee Cooper, which has drawn criticism over plans to raise power bills for some churches, declined comment. The state-owned utility serves eastern South Carolina.
Duke Energy Inc., a multi-state company with territory in northern and western South Carolina, said solar companies that sell power to customers should be treated the same as the big power companies. Duke said solar energy provides power to the company’s electrical grid from multiple sources.

Today, the company is used to getting much of its power from a centralized generation plant, much as utilities have for decades.

“Solar energy challenges this business model,” Duke said in an email.

Despite hesitation from power companies, the Rev. Cooper has support from the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and other environmental groups, which say the state should do more to embrace nonpolluting solar energy.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which represents environmental groups at the State House, agreed earlier this month to make solar-friendly legislation a priority in 2013.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said he hopes something changes.

Existing state law “has made it very difficult for solar companies to introduce this technology to the grass roots,” Neal said. “As this is happening all over the country, it is not happening in South Carolina.”

Pastor Jimmy Jones, director of Christ Central Ministries in Columbia, said changes in state law would help his charity. Like Cooper’s Washington Street United Methodist, Christ Central lost out on solar panels after the DCS-SCE&G dispute. The ministry continues to pay high power bills, which keeps it from spending that money on the poor, said Jones who blames SCE&G.

“SCE&G said, ‘We want the money,’” Jones said. “It is immoral – immoral to try to stop people from helping themselves.”

If you care about this issue in Wisconsin, please consider signing on to the Clean Energy Choice initiative here.

Read more here:

Company and Local Officials Team Up to Advance “Epic” Wind Project

Monday, October 15, 2012

Immediate release
October 15, 2012

More information
Michael Vickerman
608.255.4044, ext. 2

State’s largest customer-owned renewable energy system breaks ground in Dane County

(Madison) – Within a day after receiving the go-ahead from the Springfield town board, heavy construction equipment broke ground on Epic Systems’ Galactic Wind Farm, a six-turbine facility along U.S. Highway 12 in western Dane County.  The 10- megawatt project should begin producing power by year’s end.
Epic Systems’ project, the third customer-owned windpower installation to go forward this year, will be larger than the two-turbine Cashton Greens project in Monroe County and the two-turbine Waxdale project in Racine CountyOrganic Valley and Gundersen Lutheran completed their Cashton project earlier this year, while S. C. Johnson is building its Waxdale project, which should be operational in December of this year.
“Epic’s project came together because of four factors: a company committed to long-term sustainability, a spirit of cooperation among town and county officials, strong local support, and a favorable tax climate,” said Michael Vickerman, program and policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy organization promoting renewable energy use in Wisconsin.
Epic also owns and operates Wisconsin’s largest solar electricity facility on its Verona campus, which it completed this summer.
The Springfield town board approved Epic’s project on a 5 to zero vote.  No one at the board meeting expressed any objections to the project.
“I can easily foresee other sustainability-minded Wisconsin companies pursuing wind turbines to produce electricity for their own operations, as long as Congress acts quickly to extend the federal Production Tax Credit, which levels the playing field between wind energy and fossil-fuel generation,” said Vickerman.

RENEW Wisconsin is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) that leads and represents businesses, and individuals who seek more clean, renewable energy in Wisconsin.  More information on RENEW’s Web site at

Wind project proposed for Dane County

Friday, October 12, 2012

From an article Steven Verburg in the Wisconsin State Journal:

Epic Systems plans six wind turbines northwest of Madison

Dane County's first array of commercial wind turbines will rise hundreds of feet above the rolling hills along Highway 12 northwest of Madison under plans Epic Systems of Verona hatched over the last four weeks.

The plan had to move quickly so that Epic can take advantage of federal tax credits that expire Dec. 31, said Bruce Richards, the medical software manufacturer's director of facilities and engineering.

Six turbines — each with three 135-foot blades spinning atop a 262-foot tower — will be visible from the tall buildings in Downtown Madison, including the Capitol, and the electricity they generate will help Epic offset most of its energy needs on its sprawling Verona campus. . . .

A geothermal system heats and cools the Verona campus, and solar panels already generate electricity. The addition of the turbines will mean the company can provide about 85 percent of its own energy needs by 2014, Richards said.

"What sticks out to me is Epic's incredible commitment to renewable energy," said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, whose administration has expedited permits for the company.

Morse Group president Lou Rotello said his company will serve as engineering, procurement and construction contractor on the project, which will employ about 75 construction workers.

The site is a good one in part because almost all of the homes that could be affected by noise or flickering shadows from the turbine blades are occupied by family members of the landowners who are leasing their land for the towers, Rotello said.

The ridge isn't the windiest spot in the county, but studies indicate it will be gusty enough to spin the blades at 27 percent of their full-speed capacity each year, Rotello said.
The turbines have a capacity of 9.9 megawatts, which will qualify them as one of 10 "major" wind power generators in Wisconsin, said Deborah Irwin, the state Public Service Commission's renewable energy specialist.

Read the full article here.

Clean power for all (Offer not available in some areas)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A great article from Erik Curren from Energy Bulletin. Here is an excerpt:

In this state, you’ll get coal. And you’ll like it too.

Some parts of the United States offer excellent incentives and support to help level the playing field with grid power and make renewables affordable. And this public policy makes all the difference.

California may be #1 in solar, but un-sunny New Jersey is #2. And that’s not because you need to slather on SPF 60 if you’re visiting Newark or Teaneck.

It’s because the Garden State supports solar power through excellent public policy — a combination of a robust renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and the ability for renewable energy companies to enter into power purchase agreements with their customers, allowing a customer to use solar power without having to invest tens of thousands of dollars upfront in solar panels.

Both policies are key to cutting costs for renewables and getting close to the holy grail of “grid parity,” where clean energy from an alternative source costs about as much as dirty power from the electric company.

But with the exception of California, Colorado and a handful of traditionally liberal states in the Northwest and Northeast that have enacted serious policies to support renewable power, the rest of America remains a clean energy backwater. As California solar developer Al Rosen writes in Renewable Energy World,

There’s no solar gold rush or windfall profit. Most solar developers and their projects are struggling. The failure rate is extraordinarily high. Financing and investment is hard to come by. There are few viable programs and they all have small capacity and difficult requirements and limitations. Interconnection processes are highly complex, costly, uncertain, and time consuming. Land use entitlements, environmental approvals, zoning, planning, building and safety issues all add additional barriers to solar development.

Such barriers, which add extra cost to solar power as they do to all renewables, are the reason why the United States, still the world’s largest economy, is lagging behind such nations as Italy, the U.K. and even Indonesia in the amount of electricity we get from renewables.

And even though California is America’s renewable energy leader, the Golden State is still no great shakes in Rosen’s book. “Germany, with the same sunshine as Anchorage, Alaska, installed far more solar in the fourth quarter of 2012 than California has installed in total.”

Again, don’t blame the sun or the wind. America is falling behind on renewables because of politics.

Read the full article here.