Sunlight gleams off a long rectangular array of solar panels anchored to the gravel roof of Furman University’s physical activities building.
On a lower part of the roof, a pair of square panels fills the roof line. Nearby, on the same rooftop, 60 4-by-10-feet panels provide heat to the university’s indoor pool.
Dressed in a lightweight green jacket in the early February sunshine, Jeff Redderson, Furman’s head of facilities services, climbs a dizzying circular ladder and pops onto the roof.
“I haven’t been up here in years,” he said. And that’s just it; the panels go mostly unnoticed on their rooftop perch.
They soak up the scorching South Carolina sun and turn it into enough alternating current to, at times, power the entire activities building, Redderson said.
The panels provide a model of what could be done at Furman to turn the campus into a solar-producing, carbon-neutral institution, which the university pledged to be by its 200th anniversary in 2026.
Yet under current state law, Furman has already surpassed what it’s allowed to produce in solar power.
South Carolina lawmakers have set a cap of 100 kilowatts on the amount of solar energy allowed to be generated by non-residential customers.
At 93 kilowatts, the rooftop setup is the largest on the Furman campus, yet it provides a fraction of the estimated 5,500 kilowatts of energy the university uses at its peak on a daily basis, Redderson said.
On the ground nearby, another solar setup close to the university greenhouse produces 12.8 kilowatts of power. Another at the facilities services building generates 2.4 kilowatts.
At the university’s Shi Center for Sustainability, several solar installations dot the landscape. Combined, the panels — located on a garage, kiosk, garden trellis, parking area and mounted to a pole in the middle of the campus’ organic garden — provide 29.5 kilowatts of energy at their peak to the center, which is named for former president David Shi, under whose direction Furman developed its emphasis on sustainability and became one of 679 colleges and universities that have signed the American College University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.
In all, Furman derives up to 138 kilowatts of energy from solar power, likely the most of any one organization in the Upstate and slightly over the state cap, but not nearly as much as it needs to meet its goals, Redderson said.
BMW has run up against the same state cap with its solar panels along Interstate 85 in Greer that power the Zentrum Museum. Boeing negotiated with its power supplier, SCEG, in order to exceed the cap when it located in North Charleston and built a 2.6 megawatt, 10-acre solar system on its roof.
As the cost of photovoltaic solar panels has dropped dramatically in recent years, smaller businesses have taken advantage of federal and state tax breaks to install small-scale systems to power locations across the Upstate.
But so far, most industrial plants, larger corporations and institutions have missed out because the combinations of a cap on tax breaks and cap on project size make larger projects financially unfeasible, solar industry experts say.
What’s at stake
Solar critics say renewable energy shouldn’t get preferential treatment via tax breaks. If solar or wind or biomass energy is going to take hold here, it needs to stand on its own, many say.
The second school of thought says renewable energy should receive extra help because of its intrinsic benefits; it doesn’t pollute like coal or gas plants and doesn’t require long-term storage of hazardous waste like nuclear.
Right now, a coalition of solar advocates, utilities and conservationists are working to craft a solar plan for South Carolina that would bring consensus in the Legislature, said John Frick, vice president of government relations with the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, the organization that provides energy to 1.5 million South Carolinians.
Two bills introduced last year that would have made some changes to the state’s solar structure have stalled.
“The biggest thing with the current legislation is it gets at a slice of the issue but not at the entire issue,” Frick said. “That’s a source of the lack of consensus.”
Legislators are waiting for a bill that makes sense for all parties following the release in December of a landmark Energy Advisory Council report crafted by stakeholders that laid a framework for solar’s future in South Carolina.
“In a legislative session that’s as tight with so much going on, I really believe the only kind of legislation that has a chance of passing is a consensus, something we all agree to,” Frick said. Even with a divisive issue that could shape the future of energy in the state, Frick said he was optimistic something would get done.
The Legislature may have a consensus bill introduced as soon as next week that would comprehensively address the existing solar issues, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who has been a proponent of solar bills in the past.
Hutto said other large industries have shown interest in solar since Boeing arrived with its rooftop project.
Hutto said he didn’t feel improving tax credits for large solar projects would be “picking winners and losers in the energy market.”
“We have done things over the years to help the big utilities. They have asked for legislation over and over again. They have asked for rate hikes over and over again. I’m not saying they didn’t deserve either, but it’s not like we’ve always been neutral and now all of a sudden we’re leaning toward solar.”
Issue No. 1: Tax credits
South Carolina’s renewable energy tax credits are structured to help the little guys, said Grant Reeves, president of the South Carolina Solar Business Alliance.
That’s why we haven’t seen more corporations installing giant solar arrays on industrial rooftops or setting up huge solar farms to power their businesses, Reeves said.
“Economically, it’s difficult to do more than 100 kilowatts the way that the South Carolina tax credit is currently written,” he said.
Customers can claim a $3,500 per year tax credit for up to 10 years under current law, he said.
“The $35,000 cap means you’re only going to build small projects, residential projects or small office,” he said.
For a million-dollar project — about 500 kilowatts — the $35,000 tax credit is negligible, he said.
To see larger corporations invest in solar, the state would need to increase the cap on tax credits significantly, he said.
BMW installed 400 solar panels along I-85 that generate about 100 kilowatts of energy, said Cleve Beaufort, BMW’s energy manager for North America.
BMW is currently studying a solar project elsewhere in North America and has studied additional solar projects at its Greer headquarters, Beaufort said.
The car manufacturer uses 52 megawatts of power at peak so it would likely never completely count on solar for its energy needs, but the state’s solar laws could hold the company back from producing other solar projects, he said.
“At the end of the day you have to justify the project, so either with BMW investment or a third party they expect a certain rate of return,” he said. “So if there are competitive incentives to incentivize you to build these things, that would obviously help.”
Furman University, a nonprofit institution that can’t take advantage of federal or state tax credits to install solar, is still counting on those tax credits.
To build a solar project the size that Furman would need to cover its energy demand — about 5 megawatts — the university would need a third party to own the system, he said.
That could mean Duke Energy would develop and own the solar farm or a separate company would build it, he said. Furman has been in ongoing discussions with Duke Energy about it, but the university is still studying the issue and hasn’t yet decided on a course of action, he said.
It doesn’t make financial sense for a third party to build the farm because the low tax credits push any company’s return on investment out 10 years or more, he said.
“I think just a little more help with the legislature with those tax credits and South Carolina could be in a really good position to get some of these systems installed,” Redderson said.
Issue No. 2: Production limits
The artificial 100 kilowatt limit imposed on companies by the state “doesn’t seem right,” Reeves said.
“If you want clean energy and feel it’s important to your corporate goals or your organizational goals, then you shouldn’t be prevented from doing that,” he said.
Corporations that want to pursue larger solar projects could negotiate with utilities on a case-by-case basis like Boeing has done. Duke Energy is open to negotiating with corporations interested in solar, said Ryan Mosier, a Duke Energy spokesman.
Large facilities need reliable, cost-effective power and if they want to add solar projects into that mix, Duke Energy will work with them, Mosier said.
Duke’s renewable energy division has gained a lot of experience in other states with the types of impact solar, wind and biomass energy have on the company’s energy grid, he said. As South Carolina’s solar road map takes shape, Duke’s experience with renewables will translate here, he said.
The state’s customer-owned electric cooperatives are supportive of utility investments in solar and would support greater investment by industry in solar, said Mike Couick, president and CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
“We’ve really got to change how we look at the business model for not only cooperatives but also utilities generally because the future is going to be built around to a substantial degree distributed energy resources,” Couick said.
It may shake out that larger industry would buy into utility-owned or operated solar farms rather than having an on-site solar project like Boeing has done, he said.
Once solar energy storage is figured out, solar power will become even more attractive to industry because larger facilities will be able to rely on it even when the sun isn’t shining, he said.
Furman knew it would be a stretch to become carbon-neutral by 2026 but believed it could be done when it signed its energy pledge in 2008, said Bill Rancin, professor of earth and environmental science and co-chair of Furman’s Sustainability Planning Committee.
“I think we’ve got a shot,” Rancin said.
Duke Energy is not throwing roadblocks in front of Furman’s solar energy pursuits, Mosier said. He said they have regular conversations about shared pursuit of solar energy at Furman as a piece of Duke Energy’s solar strategy in South Carolina, he said.
From the top of Furman’s activities center rooftop project, Redderson scanned nearby buildings for rooftop space.
“We have a lot more available space, rooftop space that could take more,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of land here that could handle a large solar array. So we’re evaluating those and I think we’ll move forward as soon as they make sense financially.”