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A southern state grapples with its renewable energy future

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Everything you want to know about the current shape of renewable energy in the southeastern US state of South Carolina can be divined from a project now nearing completion on Joe White Avenue in the coastal tourist haven of Myrtle Beach.
A southern state grapples with its renewable energy future

Undertaken by state-run utility Santee Cooper at a cost of $1.3 million (including federal stimulus money), the 311 KW solar installation will be by far the largest such facility in the Palmetto State, and will increase the state’s solar capacity by 50 percent, according to Mollie Gore, the utility’s spokeswoman.

Consisting of some 1,500 solar panels, the facility is an undeniable milestone, sparkling in the bright winter light on a recent afternoon.

It’s also a stark reminder of how far the state – and the US as a whole – still has to go before it achieves anything like a meaningful reliance on solar, wind and other forms of clean energy.

Without getting too technical, one kilowatt of power is approximately equal to 1.34 horsepower. (By comparison, the average push-lawnmower uses between 5 and 6 horsepower.)

You don’t get into significant power generation until you start talking megawatts, a unit of energy 1,000 times larger. And even then, one megawatt can only power about 500 homes. By comparison, the Grand Strand solar facility will produce only enough electricity to power about 30 homes a year.

But it’s a start and that about sums up where South Carolina and its renewable energy future stand at the moment: there’s stuff going on -- in fact, a good deal of it – but it’s diffuse, not yet large scale, and largely unheralded.

“Surprisingly, there is a lot going on,” said Erika Myers, manager of the South Carolina Energy Office’s renewable energy program. “The thing is, South Carolina has been really quiet about it compared to other states.”

Myers said while the level of collaboration among individuals, institutions and organizations intent on creating a renewable energy future for the state “has just been wonderful,” South Carolina has thus far lacked for that “one champion, once voice” to pull all the pieces together in the public sphere.

“Probably the closest we had to that kind of champion were individuals from the General Assembly who served on the S.C. Wind Energy Study Committee that met through 2009,” Myers said. “That said, the reality is we aren’t doing enough to promote ourselves and that should probably change.”

Grassroots push for renewable

While projects like the Santee Cooper solar array or, closer to home, the $98 million large-scale wind turbine drive train testing facility being developed by the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston, SC suggest existing utilities or institutions of higher learning are leading the renewable energy charge, the reality is actually quite different.

Yes, the state-run utility and Clemson are major players – the university also has a major bio-fuels initiative in place at its Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence – but most of the activity in the sector is of the grassroots variety.

Myers, who’s has been with the state energy office for the past four-and-a-half years, said when she first started working there, “it was hard to get anybody’s attention about renewable energy”.

Over the past three years, a markedly different attitude has developed.

“People are coming from all over the place to seize opportunities and more and more people are coming to us wanting to get more involved in green tech or to try to figure out how to start a business in this energy sector,” Myers said.

Not surprisingly given of the new green energy entrepreneurs are members of the construction industry who are trying to find a niche that will help them get through the lingering housing market slow-down.

A big consumer of electricity

“So they are looking at different opportunities, solar being among them,” Myers said. “We get lots of calls about that – everything from the little guy, a do-it-yourselfer tinkering in his garage, to the big, international companies that are looking for a place to locate their new manufacturing facility.”

Some are inspired by patriotism – responding to the call to become less dependent on foreign oil (despite the fact most of that sold in the US comes from friendly Canada) – others by their ecological bent, and many by the prospect of making money in a new and growing industry.

Then, there are the people of South Carolina itself, and they use a lot of power – an opportunity if ever there was one. According to a December 2008 report prepared for the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee, South Carolina is the 5th largest consumer of electricity out of the 50 states.

“Ironically, it’s a byproduct of our wonderful climate,” Gore said, echoing the report’s findings. “Our high consumption number is due, in large part, to the fact that we can rely on electric-powered heat pumps to provide indoor comfort when needed, as opposed to the gas and oil that come into play in the cooler climates up north and out west,” she said.

As a result, as of 2008, the average annual consumption of electricity in the state stood at 14,340, kWh per residential customer, and because South Carolina doesn’t currently produce energy from its own resources, having no coal, oil or uranium, all that demand results in about $3 billion a year flowing out of the state, according to the SC Biomass Council.

It’s a tough situation. Something soberly acknowledged in the Utilities Review Committee study, which suggest that only 4 percent of the state’s power will come from renewable source by 2027, a number that correlates with the results of a separate study prepared by La Capra Associates, an energy consultancy based in Boston, Mass., in September 2007.

The La Capra study also went on to estimate that South Carolina only has the practical potential for 665 MW of renewable generation within the next decade.

Many of those who have made their way to the Energy Office’s doors – or at least its web site – are transplants from other communities where lawmakers have been intent on making renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, and biomass both affordable and practical.

A case in point was a recent caller to Myer’s office who had relocated from New Jersey, was familiar with the Garden State’s extensive incentive program, and wondered by South Carolina wasn’t doing the same.

New Jersey’s solar program offers financing and incentives, underpinned by a streamlined administrative approval process. Residential wind and bio-power projects are also eligible for rebates, and the state is also offering substantial rebates to support feasibility studies for wind and bio-power projects larger than 100 KW of capacity, and an innovation wind technology incentive to support rebate payments based on the actual performance of installed turbines.

That’s not to say South Carolina doesn’t have any incentives on its books. In 2007 it enacted the Energy Freedom and Rural Development Act, which provided a corporate tax credit of 25 percent of eligible costs for use of landfill gas and biomass. And it also offers tax credits for various forms of solar power as well as small hydroelectric applications.

In addition there are a number of loans, rebates and discounts offered by the various utilities around the state.

“I would say our biomass incentives are among the best in the country,” Myers said. “We have very good incentives for alternative transportation fuels, and while out ethanol incentives aren’t as great as Minnesota, they’re certainly competitive.

“At the same time, I think we’ve been able to do some very unique things when it comes to incentives for those at the distribution level,” she said.

Still, South Carolina currently offers no incentive for wind power development, and its tax credit for solar power is definitely out of date.

When it was passed in 2005, it was definitely designed for a smaller solar installation, either at the home or small business level,” Myers said. “It definitely wasn’t intended for utility-scale installations.”

Among the others who have been bitten by the renewable energy bug, the home tinkerers are undoubtedly the most fun to hear from, contacting Myers about all matter of homemade inventions, including supposed new turns on an old favorite, the perpetual motion machine – a hypothetical device that can produce useful work indefinitely and, again, hypothetically, produce more energy than it consumes.

But it’s solar that really seems to have fired the imagination of South Carolinians, Myers said.

“The reason is it’s so accessible,” she said. “Everybody can do solar, it’s not resource dependent, its scalable, you can get in it with something as small as a solar attic fan all the way up to powering your entire home or business.

“At the same time, solar is coming down in price; I think that’s another huge impetus. Plus we’ve got state (capped at $3,500) and federal tax credits that help pay for 50 percent of the investment. So that’s a big motivating factor for a lot of individuals,” Myers said.

A long wait for solar’s day in the sun

Bruce Wood, chairman of the S.C. Solar Council, has been involved with solar power in one form or another since 1976 and said his early interest was a direct consequence of the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s.

“I was coming of age then and I had a nice hot-rod GTO, and all of a sudden we were all on our butts and sitting in gas lines,” he said.

Wood said the situation caused him to do a lot of soul searching, during which it became apparent that while solar might not power his car, it could be the solution to a great many things.

“Of course, little did I know then that widespread interest in solar was still some 35 years away,” he laughed.

As a result, Wood became something of a solar pioneer in South Carolina, working with solar panels and gear to learn first-hand what the technology could and couldn’t do.

“There were times that I thought I was stupid for sticking with it – the years around the first Iraq War being a case in point, when people were saying we’d have $10 a barrel oil for as long as we wanted – but by then it had become something of a calling,” Wood said.

Wood, who is also owner of SunStore Solar in Greer, S.C., an installer of solar systems, said the last five years have been a time of exponential growth in the sector.

“For the individual homeowner or small business, a lot of the interest in solar power comes down to a desire to take personal responsibility for their energy use,” he said. “For others, the rationale is different.

“For instance I know of one developer who was putting up a lot of mountain top villas at the height of the building boom, and all during that time, environmentalists were getting on him. So now he’s embracing solar and incorporating it into his projects as a way to repaint his legacy,” he said.

Wood said a big reason solar energy’s day was so slow in arriving in South Carolina (as compared to California, for instance) was the relative cost of electricity. In California, where people were paying a premium for traditionally generated electricity, solar looked relatively in expensive.

But in South Carolina, where power from coal-fired plants was cheap, solar was an expensive commodity.

“What we’re seeing now is solar approaching parity with the cost of traditionally-generated power, otherwise known as grid parity,” Wood said. “So now we have people thinking, ‘Hey, I can switch to solar, it will cost me the same or less than the electricity I have been buying, and I can get off the grid.

Among Wood’s recent projects were a 42 KW system his company installed on the roof of the Columbia Museum of Art, a solar charging station for electric vehicles in Greenville, a solar project on a multi-family dwelling complex in Charleston, and residential projects all over the state.

“There’s a lot of appeal in the idea that you can put your money into your house instead of paying it to a utility, and basically being your own power plant,” he added.

But that’s not to suggest Wood is anti-utility as a rule; in fact it was his company that installed Santee Cooper’s solar array in Myrtle Beach.

“But,” he said, “solar power is a new model.”

“With the old model, which was based on idea of central generation, you built a great big power plant and then the lines would go out and you distributed power that way,” Wood said. “Renewable energy is easier to adapt to different situations and it can be deployed more easily to exactly where it is needed – so you have less energy lost in transmission and fewer transportation costs.

“It also allows you to put generation facilities directly on top of the buildings using the power – that’s the concept of distributed, rather than centralized, generation,” he said. “And that, in turn, opens up the future ability of establishing a smart grid.

“For example, you could have a subdivision that has solar and some backup power built into it, operating as its own micro-grid, and using smart grid technology to monitor appliance use in the homes, the power consumption, be able to control that downstream with information technology,” Wood said.

“Think of it this way, years ago, computers were these big things inside large corporations that nobody else had access to; today, computer terminals are everywhere. That’s distributed computing. It’s the same thing with energy.”

Last year, to spread the gospel of solar power, Wood appeared at a series of workshops across the state in conjunction with the American Solar Energy Society’s annual National Solar Tour.

Wood appeared in Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Aiken, Columbia and Greenville, attempting to give people who were interested in solar “some basic, quality information about solar power” so they could figure what they wanted to do and what additional information they need to bring their solar energy dreams to fruition.

“Whenever a new product or new field comes on line with lots of opportunities, you get a lot of riff raff who want to capitalize on it,” he said. “Giving people information they can trust, without a hard sell for yourself, really is the only way you can keep the riff raff and rip-off artists out.”

“The thing about solar and its growth in the South Carolina market is there are still a lot of misconceptions out there – a lot of people still think solar is free,” Wood said.

“That’s why to this day, I do not advertise. I’d rather get a job through word-of-mouth and referrals because generally speaking, the people who come to you that way are the one’s who understand it, and are doing it for the right reasons,” he said. “Given how new this all is to most people, if you simply tried to make money off their misconceptions, well, you wind up with a very unhappy customer.”

Also actively promoting solar energy around the state is the S.C. Solar Business Alliance, a group consisting of state energy professionals and grassroots supports who are working together to try to create a sustainable energy economy in the state.

The group was formed in the past year to lobby for better corporate tax credits for solar power and is also interested in statewide net metering policies and interconnection standards they believe will accelerate the growth of the industry, Myers said.

The big solar success story to date has been luring AQT Solar, which opened its first factory in Silicon Valley last year, and is now in the process of establishing a foothold in South Carolina with a solar panel production facility capable of producing 30-40 MW worth of panels annually.

AQT makes solar cells using copper, indium, gallium, sulfur and selenium as the main ingredients to convert sunlight into electricity. Unlike many other solar companies using similar materials, AQT isn’t depositing them on a large piece of glass or flexible metal sheet to make a solar panel.

Instead, the startup is layering the CIGSS on 6-inch glass pieces that can be drop-in replacement for crystalline silicon solar cells inside a panel. AQT contracts with other manufacturers to assemble those cells into panels.

The factory is scheduled to start production in 2012.

State-run utility takes varied approach to renewable energy

While the “opening” of its Myrtle Beach solar farm will no doubt garner Santee Cooper a splash of headlines latter this spring, the state-owned utility already has something of a long history in the renewable energy arena.

The utility company operates more than twenty solar schools that use renewable energy on a much smaller scale.

"I think it's great that we're able to do projects like this that demonstrate renewable generation that make it practical before our customer is going to be able to use it," said Gore.

"This isn't just somebody with a cabin in the woods, putting it on, this is Santee Cooper part of a state agency, so we've got some serious folks here,” Wood agreed.

“They're not just looking at this as a gimmick or some sort of fad, they're looking at it as their long term business model and how is going to help them and how they are going to deal with it in the future,” he said.

In the wind arena, Santee Cooper has installed an anemometer at the end of the Georgetown Fishing Pier, as part of its effort to research small-scale wind turbines.

The instrument was placed on a 30-foot fiberglass pole and mounted at the end of the pier. Engineers will now monitor the data for three to six months and if the wind is sufficient, the utility could install a 2-kilowatt wind turbine at that location.

But it’s in the harvesting of landfill gas and bio-mass, that the utility is really on the move.

Santee Cooper has been converting landfill methane into electricity since 2001, and actually sells it directly to customers who opt into buying a “green power block” from the utility.

“It’s an additional $3 per block per month on their electric bill, and that money is 100 percent reinvested in the development of additional renewable power generation,” Gore said.

The first landfill brought online was in Horry County, and the utility has since opened several more 3 MW landfill gas generating stations within its service area. Today, in fact, it generates about 22 MW from such sources.

“We take the methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, prevent it from venting into the atmosphere, and convert it to a reliable source of renewable energy,” Gore said.

“That’s one of the advantages of landfill generation and also of biomass,” she continued. “Power from it can be available on a more predictable basis that other renewable and be there when you need them.”

In fact biomass is something of a new direction for Santee Cooper. It was only last September that the utility’s board approved agreements with two firms – Domtar Paper Co. in Bennettsville and Southeast Renewable Energy, which operations in Allendale, Kershaw and Dorchester Counties -- for a total of 95 MW of biomass, the energy to be generated by wood waste and forest waste.

Gore said the facilities will come on line in about a year.

Looking for a future in Bio-mass

Biomass is considered a great opportunity that South Carolina can capitalize on, but unlike solar, which can be deployed in large scale array farms or merely on an individual home, it’s largely the province of those who want to do larger scale projects.

When it comes to biomass, most of the inquiries that make their way to the Energy Office are from large landholders who have acres covered in trees and are basically asking “Is it timber or Biomass?” or put another way, “Where am I going to get the biggest bang per tree?”

“And then of course there are the farmers, who have been planting cotton and tobacco and are now looking at bio-energy crops as a way to make more money,” Myers said.

“Again, just as in the case of renewable energy as a whole, I’ve gotten calls from individual entrepreneurs all the way up to the large ethanol and biodiesel companies that are looking to establish new facilities or who are interested in expanding,” she said.

Unfortunately, although it got off to a great start, the biodiesel sector – a subset of biomass – has been on something of a roller coaster ride in recent years.

For much of the past decade incentives for biodiesel were plentiful and as a result, the sector was growing and robust, Myers said.

But in 2009, federal tax credits for bio-diesel-related manufacturing dried up, the result being that “everybody shut down,” she said.

“So that’s kind of been one of the stories where I saw a good thing going and essentially the wool got pulled out from beneath everybody’s feet,” Myers said.

The good news, for the time being at least, is that the federal bio-diesel tax credits are back, having been extended by the lame duck Congress in December 2010 – “so maybe we’ll start to see these industries growing again,” Myers said.

“I know several of the owners personally and they were pretty much just paying the bear minimum to keep the plants and the property,” she said. They weren’t actually in production, but they were just paying off the mortgage and holding out until things got better.

So I think we’ll start to see these industries start producing and coming online again.”

Bio-fuel development seen as having huge potential

Tom French, bio-energy programs manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory and chairman of the S.C. Biomass Council, likes to point out that growing trees and growing crops is already a large part of the South Carolina economy.

“If you could convert just a part of that into making electricity or liquid fuels, then you’d have a huge impact on the state,” he said.

“You know, right now, in the absence of native resources like gas or coal, every thing we burn for energy, is imported into the state from somewhere else,” French said.

“Embracing bio-energy would create income inside the state,” he said with emphasis. “And that’s why the Biomass Council was formed.”

An organization with stakeholders ranging from scientists and farmers and timber operations to pulp and paper companies and the producers of various bio-energy products – the group pushes biomass without worrying over the particulars of one form of the energy over another.

Soon to be a 501C3 (A federal designation for a charitable organization), French said when it comes to the 250-member group, diversity is strength.

“I think if you were to survey our members, you’d find their interests are very different,” he said.

“For instance, right now the people who grow trees and timber are very interested in finding new opportunities for turning wood chips into energy,” French said.

Under such regime, trees will be harvested, ground into chips and then the chips will be burned to heat boilers that make steam. The steam is them passed through a turbine to make electricity.

Already, French said, there’s a gasifier that’s been built at USC that burns wood chips, we have three little wood burning plant at the Savannah River Site, and Amersesco is also building a 50 MW wood burning plant in the Midlands.

“And, there are more to come,” French said.

In fact, current research suggests that South Carolina’s timber farmers could harvest as many as 10 percent more trees a year to feed the plants without doing irreparable harm to the environment.

“People, of course, worry about losing the forest, but the reality is our forest resources are growing, and we’re getting more trees and bigger trees every year,” French said. “Now, that’s a good thing, because trees do a lot of good things for the environment; but it also shows that we have a resource that we could tap if we needed or wanted to.”

Indeed French said the one of the biggest challenges the development of biomass energy faces in the state is misinformation about such things as burning wood chips for energy.

“Education is the biggest thing we’re focusing on right now, because there’s just so much bad information that’s getting around,” he said. “People think if we cut down trees for power, we’ll ruin the forest. They think if they put ethanol in their car, they’ll ruin it.

“The problem is how to get message out,” French continued. “Right now we’re trying to raise money so that we can do some educational outreach, establish a web site and we’re also trying to have an interface with the Public Utility Commission Advisory Panel, providing them with information – if they want it.”

French said the state does offer some “really nice” incentives for biodiesel and E20 and ethanol blend gasoline, but at the same time, it lacks an across the board policy on with how it deals with renewable energy resources.

“The state is working toward one, as are Duke and Progress Energy, but at the moment we still don’t know what an alternative energy policy might look like here,” he said.

Last session State Sen. Paul G. Campbell, Jr. introduced legislation not for a renewable energy standard, but rather an adoption of recommended goals, but the bill never made it out of committee.

Nevertheless, French said, he believes that support for some kind of renewable energy policy is gaining traction in the legislature.

“I think there’s some momentum for a bill laying out the goals of the state, but at the same time, I think legislators are leery of setting down mandatory standards,” he said. “That seems like a rational approach. Right now we don’t have any state level goal.”

When it comes to bio-diesel, French said, the state has witnessed the creation of a few plants – the biggest being in Estill, S.C. – but they have had as difficult a time as Myers suggested.

First federal incentives intended to foster the industry disappeared (they’ve since been brought back), and then the market dried up as gas prices moderated after a price spike in the summer of 2009.

When it comes to the Estill plant specifically, there have also been challenges related to its feedstock – soy bean oil from an adjacent soy bean processing plant. Since the bio-diesel plant opened, soy beans have gotten very expensive.

As a result, the fuel plant has been seeking to shift its operations to chicken fat and other, less costly feed-stocks, French said.

Another large bio-diesel plant has been established in Warrenville, but French said the operation is still starting up.

A third, smaller biodiesel plant, Midlands Bio-Fuels in Winnsboro, is using recycled restaurant oil as its feed stock. That plant is owned Joe Renwick and Brandon Spence, graduates of the Citadel military academy in Charleston, and former members of its football team.

“Everybody’s pulling for them,” French said.

Economics of bio-fuel still an issue

One thing that hasn’t really been perfected yet is how to turn cellulose plant material into ethanol or bio-diesel economically.

Hoping to jump start the industry and give South Carolina a homegrown energy source, Clemson University scientists, in collaboration with USDA-ARS researchers, are initiating studies that will maximize production of native warm-season grasses under the climatic, soil, and socio-economic conditions encountered by farmers and other landowners in South Carolina.

“I think we’re at a really exciting year where the research is really going to help us decide what the next bio-energy crop of the future will look like for South Carolina,” Myers said.

The Savannah River National Laboratory and Clemson University have been working on the problem over the past few years and actually have come up with a process they’re high on, “but you’ve got to be able to compete with gasoline, so it’s got to be really efficient and we’re not quite where we need to be,” French said.

“Our models show that we can make ethanol at $2.50 a gallon, but I think you need to be down around $1.80 a gallon, as a blended fuel, to make the market work,” he said. “So we’re close. And again, it’s not about inventing the conversion technology, we already have that; it’s getting the technology to be really efficient.”

Another aspect of this is settling on a strategic feedstock that will serve South Carolina as well as, hopefully, it serves future drivers. Researchers at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and elsewhere, are currently investigating the relative merits of two potential feed-stocks more than any others: switch-grass and sorghum.

Both can be readily grown here, and both contain sugars – though sorghum has much more --that can be fermented directly into alcohol, which can then be used to make power.

Given its higher sugar content, sorghum produces a lot more alcohol – and therefore more potential energy -- per acre, but it has to be replanted every year and does require the use of some fertilizer – one, among other reasons, why corn has fallen into disfavor as a feedstock.

Switchgrass, while not as alcohol rich, is a hardy, perennial grass that grows in bad soil.

“So each has their strengths and the process we’ve identified for turning them into fuel works equally well on either crop,” French said. “As a result, I would say that anyone putting up at ethanol plant should consider growing both. On top of everything else, by relying on both crops, you’d have raw materials coming in year round.”

Despite the challenges, French believes better days are ahead.

“There’s no doubt the market is coming back,” he said. “As the price of gas and diesel rise, it gets closer and closer to the threshold the bio-diesel guys need to make money.”

“The people who invest in these plants want to see a return on their investment, and right now, ethanol is still right at the margin,” French continued. “So what you have are people that are leery of taking big risks, waiting on the sidelines.”

In a sense, he said, it’s a chicken and egg type scenario. French believes if they could see “that first little plant” running, they’d be more inclined to invest.

That’s one reason the S.C. Biomass Council has initiated discussion with Clemson University about the possibility of establishing a biomass pilot plant at the Restoration Institute in North Charleston.

“We envision it as a facility where you could demonstrate some of these technologies,” French said.

But again, the concept has run into significant challenges: the Council has yet to be able to raise the $25 million or so it would take to create such a facility.

“There are grants out there, of course, but we really don’t have a big industrial partner and I think those who put out these grants want to see that big industrial partner,” French said.

“We’re trying to attract somebody in Charleston to be out big industrial partner, but we definitely think that a small biomass plant would be a really good thing to have at the Restoration Institute, where Clemson’s vision is to create a center for energy education and outreach.”

Already in the state’s coastal “Lowcountry,” ArborGen Inc. in Summerville, has been experimenting with genetically engineered eucalyptus trees which can be harvested every two to four years – essentially cut off at the trunk – and a new plant with spring the still extant root system.

In the meantime, the harvested plant can be dried and chipped and used to fire energy producing boilers.

“It’s just a perpetually growing woody plant, that also has the virtue of being versatile,” Myers said. “It’s different form the Loblolly pine which is specifically designed for timber, and is already among our most commercially important crops.

“The thinking is that eucalyptus could be planted in between rows of Loblolly’s, providing the land owner with a more continual stream of income – every other year as opposed to waiting 20 to 25 years to get some income,” she said.

A representative of ArborGen declined comment, explaining that the company was currently in a US Securities and Exchange Commission mandated “quiet period” related to a corporation transaction.

Offshore wind potential explored

When it comes to wind energy, momentum has been building in the sector since 2004, when the Energy Office and Santee Cooper first began doing extensive wind mapping studies throughout the state.

As was anticipated at the outset, those studies showed that while there may be opportunities for a resident or small business to benefit from installing a personal wind turbine, onshore wind is a scarce resource here; in fact, the only potentially viable wind power sites – meaning the areas where utility-scale harvesting of the wind may be practical – is off shore and to Charleston’s north, beginning over the waters near Georgetown and continuing north.

South Carolina’s wind power sector also got a significant boost with the arrival of Dr. Nicholas Rigas at Clemson University.

Formerly the operations and technical director for FMC Corporation in Charlotte, N.C., Rigas has served as chairman of the S.C. Biomass Council, chaired the S.C. Tactical Research on Energy Independence Council and hosted the Southeast Regional Offshore wind Power Symposium held here in Charleston.

In addition to his present work overseeing the renewable energy focus area at Clemson’s Restoration Institute, he also serves as vice president of project development for EcoEnergy, an Elgin, Ill.-based firm, where he is responsible for the development of more than 3,000 MW of wind power project throughout the Midwest and in Arizona.

“I attribute a lot of the growing interest in wind power to Nick Rigas, who really is an expert in the field and came to South Carolina bringing with him of lot of industry experience based on his work in the Midwest,” Myers said.

“It was Nick who quickly connected the dots and saw in South Carolina’s long history as a manufacturing hub, the potential for it to be a wind leader and future home to wind energy companies,” she said.

Three years ago, the Energy Office received a U.S. Dept. Energy grant that was used to fill in gaps in the agency’s knowledge about offshore wind opportunities in South Carolina. Some of the money paid for a wind transmission study that looked at the feasibility to connecting large scale wind farms off the South Carolina coast to the state’s existing energy grid (a study that has been completed and is now available on the agency’s web site).

The rest of the money was used to deploy several buoys to measure wind and tidal energy potential in two specific offshore locations off Myrtle Beach and Winyah Bay, near Georgetown.

That study has also been completed, and should be made public -- and posted on the agency’s web site -- soon.

The findings are also being shared with the S.C. Regulatory Task Force, an entity consisting of several government and regulatory agencies that is examining how existing laws would mesh with the potential development of large wind farms off the coast, and how those laws could be made better.

“Fortunately, we do have a regulatory structure in place here in South Carolina that would allow for permitting,” Myers said.

Next up will be the creation of a preliminary special wind map that will identify sites along the coast that would be ideally suited for a demonstration wind farm.

Researchers are looking for a site that would be suitable for setting up perhaps a dozen wind turbines – enough to generate about 40 MW of power – that would collection additional information about things like the intermittency of wind offshore, and how future, larger wind farms might be impacted both by natural daily conditions and seasonal events like hurricanes.

“Hurricanes are a big question mark for people interested in offshore wind,” Myers said. “A demonstration project of this scope could potentially help other locations in the country determine ways to tackle them.”

“Obviously, you have to take a lot into consideration,” Myers said. “You have to look at the military’s use of air and water space, sensitive marine habitats on the sea floor, migration routes of whales and turtles and bird, you have to be mindful of existing underwater cabling, fishing uses, and of course, shipping lanes are also going to be a no-go.”

Wind is an area where South Carolina has yet to get its due.

Other initiatives, like the long delayed Cape Wind project off the Massachusetts coast, New Jersey state mandates to foster the development of 1,100 MW of offshore wind over the next decade, and Google’s $5 billion commitment to the development of an offshore wind power transmission line along the mid-Atlantic coast, grab the headlines.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, people engaged in those projects keep telling Myers and others here how far ahead of the curve we in South Carolina are, particularly when it comes to things like the buoy and wind transmission line studies.

“Obviously, that means a lot when you consider that they’ve been working at this a lot longer than we have,” she said.

While the winds off the South Carolina coast are considered to have some potential as a source of renewable energy, the coastline itself is seen generally as being a poor source for another renewable, tidal power.

“We’re no Bay of Fundy,” Myers said, referring to the bay located between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that is world renowned for its high tidal range.

“Nor do we have large waves crashing on our shores like Oregon,” she continued. “So right now, to harvest the tidal power we do have with the technology that currently exists would be too expansive to warrant the investment.

“Now, that’s not to say that things won’t happen in the future, changes in research and development and technology that could maybe utilize those smaller tides and smaller waves, and so we continue to keep out eyes and ears open to future opportunities,” Myers said.

One suggestion that’s still a possibility is co-locating equipment to capture tidal energy at the future offshore wind infrastructure, effectively using transmission lines and grid connections that would be their anyway to double the bang of the investment dollar.

“It’s not something we’re thinking of doing right away, but I think it is something that could be retrofitted later,” Myers said.

But that is still a long time off because when it comes to wind and developers who would be capable of establishing a wind farm of meaningful size, it’s not the state of the research or the availability of state incentives that’s important, but insuring a market for their product.

Offshore wind is 50% to 1005 more expensive than onshore wind.

“So getting over that cost differential is going to be the biggest hurdle [for the future development of the sector],” Myers said. “I think it’s going to require some level of assurance to investors that they will be able to sell their energy at a competitive rate and at least be able to recoup their investment.”

Tough days ahead for incentives

For now, the notion of getting a new tax credit regime adopted for the various renewable being examined across the state appears to be a non-starter. Given the state’s $1 billion budget shortfall, it will be hard to justify tax credits rather than say, paying for schools.

“That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of support for renewable energy in the General Assembly, there is,” Myers said. “Particularly in light of all the work that has been down and things like the AQT announcement, where a new solar manufacturing facility is bringing 1,000 jobs to Richland county; but the reality is, we’re facing hard times when it comes to the prospects for incentivizing this industry.”

Still, Myers remains optimistic about the future of the renewable energy in South Carolina.

“I certainly believe South Carolina can compete with anybody in the rest of the country when it comes to renewable energy, but in doing so, we need to recognize just how highly competitive this field is,” she said.

“Every state wants this; this means a lot of jobs, it means a new manufacturing sector that could potentially really benefit South Carolina, but again we’re competing against some of the most aggressive states in the country” Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, to name just three, and all these guys are out front pushing and pushing for this,” she said.

“I think the leadership of this state is going to be really integral to determining how success we are,” Myers continued. “But I have a lot of hope.

“If this all comes to together, I think it can mean some really big, positive changes for South Carolina,” she added. “It’s right there in front of us. We just need to take that next step forward.”

For additional information

South Carolina Energy Office

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