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Is solar power worth it? WMBF Investigates looks into utility company’s charges for solar customers

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 8:30 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Many people may be looking to cut costs on utilities when buying a home in the Grand Strand.

In order to do that, some may look to reduce their carbon footprint at the same time by turning to solar energy to power their home.

But one Socastee retiree told WMBF Investigates that charges added to his bill by his utility company may mean he’ll never see a return on his investment.

Roger Leach bought and had his panels installed over a year ago on the roof of his home. The price for solar panels is going down, and Leach was able to capitalize on some rebates and tax breaks. But he still paid a pretty penny - well over $10,000.

That cost, Leach felt prepared for. It’s what started showing up on his Santee Cooper energy bill that he was not.

“My investment will never pay off. Never,” Leach said. “

The reason why, he said, is because of the charging mechanisms showing up on each month’s bill.

“I like to think that I was doing it, one, for the environment. But the main reason, obviously, is to save money. And when you retire, you’re on fixed incomes,” Leach said. “You don’t want things high cost. But in the end, solar panels, solar energy’s been very expensive, very. And many of my neighbors who also got solar panels have the same problem.”

How it works is this: Leach relies on the energy his panels generate during a sunny day. But without a battery to store any excess, that means his home switches over to use Santee Cooper’s power when it’s nighttime.

A standard charge, across all Santee Cooper customers, both solar and electric, stands at $19.50. Public relations specialist Tracy Vreeland said this covers the cost of billing, meter reading, and other clerical things. But it doesn’t cover the infrastructure, she said.

“The infrastructure is part of your power bill,” Vreeland said.

But for customers who are utilizing solar power, they also have a charge called the Solar Stand-By KW Charge. This rate comes in at $4.40 per kilowatt that is generated by your panels.

That’s translated into $22.22 on Leach’s bill every month.

This charge, however, doesn’t directly go to supporting your solar power, Santee Cooper explained. Instead, it goes toward supporting the infrastructure to supply their power.

“We want to make sure that all of our customers are treated fairly. So our rate structure is set up that all of those infrastructure things - the poles, the wires, all of that - is in the regular customer’s bill,” Vreeland explained. “Well, the solar customers don’t rely on that all the time. So they have to make up for those costs so that our other customers aren’t paying for our solar customers.”

Vreeland said it’s this charge that makes sure the infrastructure Santee Cooper utilizes to get their power to a solar customer’s house is paid for and ready at any time.

But what happens if you make even more solar power than you need?

Leach explained this goes back into the grid, which the utility company then gives energy credits to the solar customer for the contribution. And that’s where he found another oddity in his bill.

“Santee Cooper gives us back just under 4 cents a kilowatt,” Leach explained. “Understand that when you buy it, you’re paying 11 cents a kilowatt.”

Vreeland provided the following information in a follow-up email for the difference in this pricing.

Vreeland said solar energy is beneficial in terms of cost, but customers need to get the right amount of panels, saying it’s not cost-effective to generate a surplus of solar energy.

“We would recommend getting just enough that you need so you’re not paying for extra panels, and then not getting the benefits for that for your house,” she said. “You can absolutely have too many panels and be creating so much power that you can’t use it that it’s not worth the cost for you.”

Vreeland recommends that consumers do their homework: call their utility company to find what array of panels you would need, and find the best solar company for you. The utility company provides a list of trade allies on their website that they recommend, along with more information about how their program works.

“You don’t want to spend a lot of money on panels that aren’t going to make you any money,” Vreeland said.

Leach said, at this time, he would not recommend going solar.

“Before you put solar panels on the roof, look at the costs. And you’ll probably find out what we found out too late, that it’s actually costing you,” Leach said. “You’re not gaining anything, except your carbon footprint, of course.”

Vreeland said that Santee Cooper’s rate structure could change in the future.

“Our rate structure right now was built before we had the solar program. So it is built to serve all of our customers all of the time,” she said. “We’re looking at a lot of different programs to help reduce our peak times and looking at time of day usage.”

But this will not happen for years. Vreeland said in an email that “any potential restructuring of rates would take place after the current rate freeze in 2025 at the earliest, so it is currently unclear what the impacts of this possible restructuring will be on the various customer classes.”

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