• Solar producers hope to shine light on SC energy woes

    By: MEG KINNARD, Associated Press

    Updated:
    SWANSEA, S.C. (AP) - Wannelle Witt Lefkowitz smiles as she looks out over the more than 80 acres of South Carolina farmland that's been in her family for three generations. These days, though, the expansive fields are home not to grasses or crops but to rows and rows of gleaming solar panels, tilting throughout the day toward the sun to gather energy that will ultimately power hundreds of homes a year.

    "I truly believe that the future of energy is using sustainable sources," Lefkowitz told The Associated Press during a recent tour of her land. "I can think of no better use for this property."

    The more than 45,000 solar panels that line Lefkowitz's farm in Swansea, about 20 miles south of the state capital of Columbia, were installed by Cypress Creek Renewables. The Santa Monica, California-based company says it's developed 2.2 gigawatts of solar power in more than a dozen states, with many other projects in development.

    Cypress Creek is selling the power it generates to South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., a major South Carolina utility that has more than 700,000 electricity customers here. SCE&G and parent company SCANA have been the subject of public scorn since last summer, when the companies - along with co-owner Santee Cooper - abandoned construction of two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, following the bankruptcy of lead contractor Westinghouse.

    Thousands lost their jobs in the $9 billion debacle, which has spawned multiple lawsuits, as well as state and federal investigations and the resignation or retirement of high-ranking executives at both SCANA and Santee Cooper.

    Since last fall, lawmakers have been embroiled in debate over bills to rejigger the regulatory processes, repay customers and neuter a law that's allowed SCANA to charge customers more than $2 billion toward paying down its V.C. Summer debt.

    One Senate lawmaker is speaking out about his frustration over the chamber's inability to even schedule a hearing to consider his proposal to require utilities like SCANA to buy wholesale power from smaller, independent power producers like Cypress Creek if they can make power more affordable.

    Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says his proposal would benefit both South Carolina's utility customers - who already pay among the highest rates in the nation - and smaller energy producers. If companies like Cypress Creek can produce power more cheaply than companies like SCANA, Davis says, they can then sell cheap power to a bigger utility, which can then pass the savings on to its customers.

    The big companies, Davis wrote in a recent op-ed, have an "incestuous" relationship with state regulators, which have been "routinely approving" utilities' "expensive capital projects and rubber-stamping their rate increases with, at best, cursory consideration of the consumers' best interest."

    "We have a Republican-controlled House and Senate, yet none of the legislative responses to the V.C. Summer disaster address the service monopolies provided by the Legislature to the large utilities," Davis recently told the AP, stressing the need for diversification in South Carolina's energy market, currently dominated by SCANA and a few other producers. "It speaks to the influence those utilities have in the Legislature. It's embarrassing."

    Once fully operational, Lefkowitz's solar farm will generate enough energy for 1,000 homes. For Lefkowitz, the benefit is both monetary and psychological. Over the 35-year span of her lease agreement with Cypress Creek, the company will be paying more than $2 million in property taxes, money that will directly benefit the area her family has called home for generations.

    Standing on a small dirt mound overlooking some of the thousands of panels that cover his wife's farm, Marty Lefkowitz mused on the need for more energy options, something he said could even benefit the bigger companies like SCE&G as user demand continues to increase.

    "It's a benefit all the way around," Marty Lefkowitz said. "Why not plan now, for the future?"

    ___

    Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard.

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