See the Light

Many South Carolinians are realizing the economic upside of investing in solar panels and efficiency upgrades for their homes. The benefits, however, extend far beyond the savings that individual homeowners experience and include critically important implications for the resilience of our electric grid and ultimately our environment — things that all South Carolina citizens should care about and benefit from equally.

As solar technology gains more of a foothold in the Palmetto State, it’s important to understand the full spectrum of benefits that solar provides. This is especially pertinent right now, as utility regulators are deciding the fate of Dominion’s rooftop solar proposal and major utilities like Santee Cooper are planning for future energy generation. 

To start from a system-wide perspective, a primary benefit of residential solar is that it reduces the need for utilities to build and charge for new energy-generation facilities. To put it another way — in the long run, residential solar reduces a utility’s “cost of service” which leads to lower costs for customers as well. 

Solar positioned on rooftops provides the added benefit of being close to the point of energy consumption and also provides a distributed source of energy generation. Energy from rooftop systems is often used where it’s produced, saving energy by reducing energy lost in transmission and distribution lines — lines that often run hundreds of miles to reach your home. 

As a distributed source of energy creation, home solar also increases the resilience of our electric grid. Unlike a typical large-scale energy generation facility, rooftop solar is distributed across the state, making our grid less vulnerable to a single event threatening our access to electricity. With more focus on resilience at the local and state level, including a new resilience office appointed by Gov. Henry McMaster, this benefit of rooftop solar should not be overlooked. 

Clean energy sources like solar along with energy efficiency measures lower greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of coal and gas generation — thus mitigating climate change. The effects of which, like increased flooding and storms, are all too familiar to Lowcountry residents. In addition to being large contributors to climate change, both natural gas and coal are associated with high levels of pollution and are linked to myriad health and water quality concerns, especially in communities where those plants are located, which are often low-income communities or communities of color.

When South Carolinians generate power from renewable energy sources (or use less altogether), the less those coal and gas plants are running, which means fewer pollutants are being emitted into South Carolina’s air and water.

It’s important that we all do what we can to help S.C. transition to clean energy, but that includes taking steps to lower our energy usage too.

While solar doesn’t work for every rooftop or household, simple energy efficiency upgrades and weatherization measures are a viable option for most. Of the $2,000 the average American spends paying for energy annually, 20-40% could be going to waste from drafts, air leaks around openings, and outdated heating and cooling systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Tens of thousands of older homes in our region have been identified as retrofit-ready and could be easily upgraded with resulting savings exceeding the cost.

The North Charleston-based Sustainability Institute works with families in the region on weatherizing homes, to improve energy conservation and lower energy bills for those households. This not only generates long-term savings and makes homes more livable and comfortable but it also lowers demand on the energy grid, especially during extreme weather events.

Residential solar and energy efficiency upgrades are much more than individual solutions to lower one’s electric bill. They are key ingredients to a diversified energy portfolio, a more resilient and sustainable grid, and ultimately a cleaner environment for future generations. They also are an economic boon, creating thousands of well-paid jobs across our state.

South Carolina needs to be doubling down on a set of policies that protect residential solar and energy efficiency programs and allow them to flourish, not stifling those efforts. We need to be incentivizing and rewarding customers that opt in, not disincentivizing or penalizing customers. We need to be moving towards making these options cost-effective for all ratepayers, not making them out of reach. Not just out of good for the individual customer, but out of good for our energy grid, our economy, and the environment that we all cherish.

Bryan Cordell is the executive director of the Sustainability Institute in North Charleston.