060817 Environment: Incentives draw homeowners to solar panels
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Jeff Ciuba balanced power and payback in selecting panels for his house in Murrells Inlet.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Environment: Incentives draw homeowners to solar panels

By Nikki Best

Keen to be green? Or just to keep more green in your pocket? Solar power could be the answer you’re searching for, but that’s all in the numbers.

“It made sense for us because of the rebates and federal and state tax credits,” Jeff Ciuba, a Murrells Inlet resident, said. He and his wife Cindy had 22 panels installed by Carolina Energy Conservation. He flipped the switch on last month.

“We had decided to do it some time ago,” Ciuba said. “Green energy is interesting, but it’s got to be cost effective too when I look at it.”

A federal tax credit for installing solar panels falls under the investment tax credit. It allows a deduction of 30 percent of the cost of installing a certified residential or commercial solar system from federal taxes. There is no cap.

On the state level, South Carolina allows a 25 percent tax credit of the cost of a certified installation, but caps it at $3,500 per year. If the cap prevents a consumer from claiming the full 25 percent, additional claims can be carried forward for up to 10 years. One hang up on this credit, it cannot be claimed until the installation is complete and certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation or the state energy office.

“I picked what I thought was the most number efficient for the quickest payback,” Ciuba said. “It wasn’t the smallest system, but it wasn’t the biggest.” He forecasts his panels will pay for themselves in two years.

The Ciubas’ system doesn’t involve batteries, it relies on the state-owned Santee Cooper power grid during low sun days. Excess wattage generated is sent back into the system and Santee Cooper calculates its current solar incentive rebate based on that excess wattage. According to the company’s website, “A rebate of $1.60 per watt-alternate current is available for residential customers in South Carolina who install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on their homes. The maximum residential solar installation eligible is a 6 kilowatt system, or a $9,600 dollar solar rebate.”

Mike Kohl and Jane McLamarrah installed a solar system at their Pawleys Island home “Dino’s Retreat” in November 2013, before Santee Cooper offered its rebate. “We produce at the max 8.4 kW per hour,” Kohl said of his 24 south-facing panels. “It never maxes because of the nature of the angle of roof and the sun.” To actually produce maximum wattage the panels would have to be mobilized to follow the daily seasonal variation, he said.

In peak months, like May, the system produces 1,300 kW and the house only uses 400 kW. “In July, when you use a lot of power for air conditioning, we’re producing about 1300 kW and we’re using about 1350 kW,” Kohl said. “Then as you get into September and October, you produce more than you use.”

Santee Cooper’s current rate for summer power is 11.97 cents per kWh. An average residential customer uses 1,000 kWh per month. That adds up to an almost $140 bill per month, when the consistent customer charge is taken into account. For a solar customer, when excess energy is created Santee Cooper buys it back from the customer and credits them on monthly bills.

“From what I understand it’s a pretty good gap from what we purchase from them to what we sell for,” Ciuba said. “You know they are giving you a rebate up front and I’m sure that’s all figured in somehow.”

“Solar customers receive an energy credit of about 3.8 cents per kWh for any excess solar power they produce for the grid,” Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said in an email. “As an added incentive, the first 500 residential rooftop customers to sign up will receive an additional 3 cents per kWh credit (for a total of 6.8 cents/kWh) through 2019. We are still under that 500-residential customer threshold, so that additional incentive is still available.”

McLamarrah is a professional civil engineer. Kohl is a retired Clemson library archivist. These are the kind of people who live and die by spreadsheets, keeping diligent records about their solar and real estate investment. “I do it by month,” McLamarrah said. “I have the kilowatts we use, the bill Santee Cooper gives us and I added in the solar information. I have that from since we bought it.” The house and the system, she said.

“It’s one of these things that we just assume we wouldn’t have to deal with Santee Cooper being so retrograde about things,” Kohl said. “If we had net metering this stuff would really pay for itself.”

Santee Cooper doesn’t offer net metering like Duke Energy. For the investor-owned utility, net metering is one of the ways for consumers to change their energy bills by using the power they generate and keeping excess in a bank to sell back to the company. According to Duke Energy’s website, “when a customer chooses net metering, we replace the meter at the customer’s home with a bidirectional meter that measures two-way flow of electricity. Net metering customers are charged only for the “net” power that they consume from the electricity service provider that has accumulated over a designated period or, if their renewable energy-generating systems make more electricity than is consumed, they may be credited or paid for the excess electricity contributed to the grid over that same period.”

At Duke Energy, net metering is only available for systems that are set up to produce at least 20 kW on average. Dino’s Retreat produces 50 kW some days. For the Upstate there’s a choice between being on the grid and just offsetting a bill, and opting to sell excess power back. Why not in Georgetown County?

“We believe our incentives, which include the rebates and energy credits, are effective in helping our customers invest in solar power,” Gore said. “We have fixed costs to serve all our customers, such as maintenance of our generating stations and distribution wires and poles.”

Residential solar customers pay a standby fee of $4.40 per kW, $4.70 for commercial, installed capacity each month. Santee Cooper’s distributed generation rider says, “it’s important that we don’t shift the cost to serve solar customers to our non-solar customers. We are committed to continued support for solar energy – whether we’re generating it or you are – and also to making sure all our customers are charged fairly for access to our system.”

Solar energy is a long term investment. The panels are tough, estimated to last at least 20 years. Each cell is made of silicon or thin film, conducting materials and anti-reflective coating. Cells are then connected to create modules. Modules are sized according to the amount of conducted power desired, usually a 6-by-10 or 6-by-12 grid. The modules then create panels. The panels at Dino’s Retreat have been through the ringer in the last few years with Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Joaquin blowing through, but “no damage to the panels,” Kohl said. But the system isn’t impervious. Like anything in the home, it requires a little upkeep.

“Our house being so close to the ocean and it being reasonably high, it’s gotten struck by lightning maybe once every five years,” he said. A strike in 2014 blew up a power inverter and it took them a month to notice it. No solar power was generated for that month, now the part-time residents check it each day when they’re in the house.

When asked if they would consider adding chargeable batteries to their system and going completely off-grid, Kohl was hesitant. “Not as long as we’re renting,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, you can’t deal with a situation [for renters] where it’s cloudy for a week and half in January. People, if they’re here, they want to have power.”

Clean energy is the wave of the future. Tesla Solar has introduced roof shingles that have solar cells built into them. Google’s Project Sunroof uses mapping data to help consumers research the effectiveness of installing solar cells.

“Obviously anyone would go solar if they could. For it to cost even less, then it becomes kind of a no-brainer,” Ciuba said.

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