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Cities warm up to solar

​Saluda Town Administrator Tom Brooks says he has just one regret about the decision to install solar panels to power town hall — He didn't go far enough.

Town of Saluda solar panels
The Town of Saluda received a ConserFund loan to assist with installing solar panels, making it one of the first cities in the state to use solar energy. Photo: Town of Saluda.

"We stuck our toe in the water to see how it feels. We should have signed up all our buildings at the time," Brooks says. "It's expensive, but the payback is there."

Saluda was one of the state's first cities to install solar panels, tapping into the buzz around solar energy and its potential savings.

"We realized power bills were always going to go up," said Brooks. "We started talking to the (state) Energy Office. They had some great programs, and SCE&G had some good programs for government agencies. The timing was right. And when we looked at the numbers, it was a no-brainer."

Through the Energy Office, the town received a ConserFund loan, allowing Saluda to borrow money at a low interest rate to put in solar panels and retrofit Town Hall with energy-efficient light bulbs. The town also worked closely with SCE&G and the company's renewable energy team.

Saluda now receives a credit on each electric bill for the energy it puts back on the power grid. The town has a 10-year contract to sell power generated at Saluda Town Hall to SCE&G. The project is expected to pay for itself after 3½ years, so the town will be making money for 6½ years.

"We were pleasantly surprised. We were hoping it would be a quick payback, and in a year it has proven itself," said Brooks.

"It's weather dependent, so on cloudy days, you are not making as much money," he added. "You have months that are good and months that are not so good. But looking at the charts, the only month that we were down in generation from expected was December. Every other month we met or exceeded the (power) generation," he said.

Low-interest loans
While local governments can't take advantage of tax credits often available for solar projects in residential and commercial buildings, some utilities have special incentives for certain public sector customers. The S.C. Energy Office has a low-interest loan program (currently 1.5 percent interest rates) that can be used for solar projects by local governments and nonprofits, if the projected savings are high enough, according to Trish Jerman, manager of energy programs for the office.

Additionally, grants and loans to help pay for solar installations may be available for local governments in rural areas as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Energy for America Program.

Jerman warned of a proliferation of inaccurate information regarding solar energy. She suggests that municipalities interested in solar contact her office or check out websites including l.masc.sc/SCconserfund, l.masc.sc/SCsolargov and l.masc.sc/EErevolvingloan.

The Town of Hampton has also taken a step toward solar. Robert Poston, Hampton's director of building and zoning, says the town took over a dilapidated mobile home park at the same time the local regional water system was looking into solar power.

"The mobile home park was inside the town limits and was a nuisance to us," Poston says. "It's contiguous to the wastewater treatment plant. When this option came up, we put our heads together. We all came together and worked it out."

Located on about seven acres owned by the town, the solar farm is expected to produce about 2,106 megawatt hours of electricity a year, the equivalent of what it takes to power 147 homes.

Solar energy will now provide all power to the wastewater treatment plant, a savings of about $25,000 a year in operating costs, Poston said. The town, Lowcountry Regional Water System and SCE&G all worked together on the project, with the solar farm participating in SCE&G's Solar Energy Non-Residential Bill Credit Program.

"It's got our folks in town interested in solar," Poston said. "We want to start looking at powering other facilities as well — maybe Town Hall and the fire department."

'Do your homework'
Brooks of Saluda said towns looking to tap into solar energy should get in touch with the state's Energy Office to see if it's the right move and look into power usage and how long it takes to pay back the investment.

"Make sure the program fits for you. You don't want to invest in something that's going to take too long to pay back," he says. "We've seen a lot of big solar farms around Saluda. We didn't influence those, but there are a lot of small businesses and agriculture businesses interested in solar. We thought, 'Let us try at Town Hall and see how it works before a business jumps into the game.' Hopefully we can be a model."

Before venturing into solar energy, municipalities and energy leaders point out the importance of dealing with a reputable solar contractor with a proven work history. The cheapest option may not always be the best.

"Do your homework and make sure they have a track record," Brooks said. "The last thing you want is to invest $60,000 or $70,000 on solar, and then the company goes out of business."

Be skeptical
Keith Wood, the operations director for the Laurens Commission of Public Works, said customers should be skeptical about some solar company claims that power bills will drop immediately after solar panels are installed.

Laurens CPW puts in two meters in homes that convert to solar. One of the meters measures the energy the home is pulling in from the town and the excess energy the home is pushing back out. The second meter runs from the panels to the load center or breaker panel in the house, measuring when the solar panel produces energy.

"I want to be able to read both meters. Then we can say, 'Here's the power you use, and here's the power your solar panel produces,'" Wood said. "We do it on peak and off peak times. This way they can know what they're consuming in their house and can apply the retail rate to that, so they can see what they are avoiding."