Walking up to Juliet and Randall Roberts’ house on a tree-lined street in Columbia’s Melrose Heights neighborhood brings into view a welcoming front porch and a charming house. It’s a classic, built in the 1930s and expanded greatly, including a second story added in the 1990s. Only by peeking at the roof at the perfect angle is it possible see the house’s 21st century addition.
The Roberts recently joined an increasing number of South Carolinians in installing solar panels atop the home; the panels cover the south-facing side of the roof. Changes in state law and encouraging policies from utility companies have come together to make South Carolina one of the hottest markets for home and business solar in the country.
For Randall, the environmental benefits are welcome, but it was the savings on energy spending that sealed the deal as he pondered adding the 10-kilowatt system. “It was the numbers that really got me excited,” he says.
For their 4,000-square-foot home, he expects that the system will offset an average of 75 percent of their energy costs, saving the family more than $200 per month on a typical energy bill. In as little as five years, the system will have paid back its installation costs, and is expected to continue providing power for the rest of its 25-year lifespan. The only probable maintenance for the homeowner is having the panels cleaned after South Carolina’s famously heavy spring pollen to ensure continued efficiency in collecting energy.
“It’s making money without doing any work,” Randall says. “It’s exciting.”
More and more homes and businesses in the state are doing the math and becoming excited too. South Carolina Electric & Gas had more than 1,200 customers sign up between October 2015 and April 2016 for a special bonus rate for solar-generated power that they provide to the grid, and customers continue to sign up even though the bonus category has been capped. Electric cooperatives in the state are also making community solar available to their customers.
Those who have worked to install solar panels in the state have seen the boom too. Don Zimmerman, president and chief executive officer of Alder Energy Systems, has been working to install solar systems in the state since 2008. More recently he is seeing people decide to take the plunge in large numbers. “Customers tended to think about going solar, but thought it was too expensive.”
The shift in mindset came from solar advocates, utility companies and regulators agreeing upon legislation that found a happy medium to help provide incentives to prompt many customers to see the value in the long-term investment. “In the past year-and-a-half it has really taken off,” Don says.
What goes into the decision to turn to solar for a home or business? “A good solar installer can look at the home or building’s roof space, energy usage and sun exposure to calculate what the options are for solar power,” says Sara Hummel Rajca, community outreach manager for Solarize South Carolina and chairwoman of the South Carolina Solar Council. The Solarize South Carolina nonprofit connects customers to a screened set of installers. “A good installer can fill in all of the blanks and give the property owner a good idea of what to expect from solar. They will even be honest if solar doesn’t make sense for any reason at a given property,” Sara says.
One bonus for the recent adopters is the price of panels, which has been dropping at rapid speed. The panels have become both less expensive and more efficient at turning sunlight into energy. The price of the equipment necessary for a small solar power system has gone down by one-half in the past four years, according to Don. In addition to panels, a system needs a power inverter that can convert the electricity into a form ready to flow onto the grid and a separate meter.
Most home systems don’t include batteries to store the power but instead use the connection to the electrical grid. Instead of storing power for later use, the property owner receives credit for power that is generated and fed into to the grid, which is called “net metering.” When the home needs additional power, the grid supplies it, and the homeowner’s bill reflects how the power flowed in each direction.
There are nights, cloudy days and winter days with low sunlight, which reduces the actual efficiency of solar, so for most buildings a connection to the electrical grid is a must. “Even with that, South Carolina is in the top one-third of all states for the amount of sunlight it receives that can be converted into power,” Sara says. “We get a ton of sun here.”
When a homeowner decides to invest in solar power, part of the calculation is the upfront cost and tax credits. In 2014, the South Carolina Distributed Energy Resource Program Act included tax credits that have gone a long way into making South Carolina a hot market for solar. The federal government provides a full tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of a home system, while the state tax credit covers 25 percent of the cost, with a cap of $3,500 taken per year. For a solar system costing $25,000, that means a cost to the homeowner of $11,250 after all tax credits.
That tax benefit makes South Carolina one of the more generous states for solar, and combined with a relatively low rate of usage, has prompted many companies to look to work here. “The incentive in South Carolina, is in my opinion, one of the best in the United States,” says Doug Rose, director of sales at Vision Solar. The company was launched in Utah and has done business from coast to coast, and he says he’s seen tremendous growth in the South Carolina market. He expects 100 to 200 percent growth in solar installations in 2017.
Doug advises potential clients to look at solar as both a home investment and hedge against rising energy costs. If a customer finances their solar panels, they make a monthly payment instead of dealing with increasing energy rates from the utility companies, and the home has solar panels as an added asset going forward. “Instead of consuming expensive energy, they’re adding value to their homes,” Doug says.
Solar panels are a good investment for a homeowner to make for the future value of their home as well. Someone shopping for a new home will see a house with much lower monthly energy costs as an attractive home, especially with the solar system already in place.
North Carolina’s generous incentives lapsed at the end of 2015, so companies that built their business there are now looking to build in South Carolina. “National companies such as Vision Solar are working here, and in-state companies, who did most of their business with out-of-state clients, are now doing more work here too,” Sara says.
Once a property owner decides to add solar to a house, it takes an estimated six weeks for all permits and inspections to be ready. Then it just takes a couple of days of work on the roof and a little follow-up to get the system up and running. “The flat, rectangular panels are thin, but they’re not flimsy,” Don says. “Many new panels are rated to endure hail sized up to 1 inch without being damaged.”
Even if a home or business isn’t well-positioned to take advantage of solar on its own roof, there’s another option that doesn’t require rooftop equipment. Community solar, or remote solar power stations, are established so that consumers can subscribe to and get credit from — or even become the owners of — a solar panel that is situated away from the home. The facility is operated by the utility company, so no work has to be done on the home.
Most aspects of the state’s surge of solar power are linked in one way or another to the 2014 law. Discussions that led to the 2014 solar law in the state brought all the interested parties, from environmental advocate groups to the utility companies, around one table to hash out what could be agreed upon. This came as a great surprise to those involved who had made similar efforts in other states, but the South Carolinians were more focused on reaching a consensus than defending dug-in positions. Elsewhere, that doesn’t often happen.