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Solar power: Homeowner buys high, sells low

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Mike Kohl looks out over his rows of solar panels to the rooftops on Pawleys Island and sees the potential.

“Look at all these houses around here,” he said. “They don’t have many trees on Pawleys Island. You could be slapping these things on all these houses. In the long run, it would be beneficial.”

Kohl and his wife, Jane, own Dino’s Retreat, a house on Hazard Street. He said they decided to spend over $40,000 on rooftop solar panels for a couple of reasons. With tax incentives, the system will pay for itself in savings, and it will probably make the house more attractive to buyers when they are ready to sell.

Kohl, a retired library archivist at Clemson University, says state-owned Santee Cooper isn’t doing as much as other electric utilities to promote solar power generation. “Last year,” he said, “we produced almost 10,000 kilowatts of power and used less than 13,000 overall. The problem is that Santee Cooper does not do net metering. Some times of the year we are literally producing over twice as much power as we are using, and it goes back in the system. Instead of paying us at the retail rate, 12 cents a kilowatt, they pay us at 4 cents a kilowatt.”

Kohl said he expects to pay Santee Cooper for power he uses at night and on cloudy days. He’s not about to unplug his refrigerator at dark, and last July lightning struck his inverter and the system was down for a month. Kohl said he paid Santee Cooper $1,400 for fewer than 2,000 kilowatts. “These guys are charging us a lot for power and not giving us fair credit,” he said. “If we had net metering, I don’t know how much I’d pay, but I bet it would be less than $1,400.”

Kohl opens his laptop and shows bar graphs that track his power generation. In April he produced twice as much electricity as he used and got a bill for $63.67 from Santee Cooper.

Mollie Gore, spokesperson for Santee Cooper, said power bills reflect more than the cost of electricity. Customers pay to maintain the electric grid. “The most important thing,” she said, “is making sure customers are paying equitably for their access to use the electric system. We don’t think it’s fair to charge non-solar customers to pay the fixed costs associated with that grid disproportionately. Electricity is always available to him. If you have a storm in the middle of summer, his lights should not blink. We are there when he needs us. The infrastructure is a fixed cost that, frankly if you are a part of our system, we are going to need to collect the proportionate cost to serve you.”

Kohl said Santee Cooper is behind the curve. “Duke Power and SCE&G are actually encouraging people to put in solar power,” he said. “Santee Cooper is discouraging it. What aggravates me is that these folks are talking about green power and all this stuff when 99 percent comes from methane in a landfill. They could be talking about the power they are getting from their clients who are producing power.”

Kohl said Georgia has net metering and more incentives for solar power because environmentalists and tea party people objected to doing business with a monopoly, Georgia Power. In South Carolina, proposals for net metering for Duke Energy and SCE&G and additional tax credits are awaiting state Public Service Commission approval.

Santee Cooper, Gore said, recovers some of its fixed costs from the rate it pays for solar-generated electricity. “As a rule of thumb,” she said, “we do back out the cost of serving them when we buy back their excess electricity.”

Kohl said Santee Cooper hasn’t figured out how to benefit from solar or it doesn’t want people to install it.

“If it’s their policy to discourage people from producing clean energy,” he said. “Why are they talking about being green? If they encouraged people, you’d have solar all over.”

Gore said Santee Cooper has supported customers who wanted to install solar. She said the company introduced a solar homes initiative with zero percent financing, rebates and tax incentives for rooftop solar and was the first utility to install a solar system of its own in Horry County.

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