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Duke Energy moves to expand use of solar in S.C.

South Carolina stepped into the solar spotlight Tuesday with proposals by Duke Energy and South Carolina Electric & Gas to expand renewable energy.

Duke’s two Carolinas utilities filed plans they said would add 111 megawatts of solar energy in South Carolina by 2021. Less than 2 megawatts of solar there is now connected to Duke.

S.C. E&G asked for regulators’ approval to add about 100 megawatts of new solar in the same time frame. South Carolina had 4.6 megawatts of installed solar capacity in 2012.

Both filings follow state legislation enacted last year that requires utilities to produce 2 percent of their generation from the sun by 2021. The proposals, which need approval by the state’s Public Service Commission, also reflect other elements of a law that was intended to boost solar in the state.

The law allows companies to lease solar systems to homeowners, making the technology more affordable. It also lets utilities build solar farms and recoup their costs as they would for traditional power plants.

Duke’s plan includes customer rebates of up to $5,000 to install rooftop solar arrays. It lets customers subscribe to community solar projects run by nonprofit groups, churches or schools.

Duke will also seek proposals to buy power or installations that generate more than 50 megawatts of utility-scale solar farms.

Duke has 720,000 customers in South Carolina. The program’s costs, estimated at $69 million, would be paid by customers.

The S.C. E&G proposal encourages customers to install solar systems by paying premium rates for the energy they generate and adding 45 megawatts at solar farms. Like Duke, it plans to help customers buy into community solar farms.

While North Carolina has become a solar star, now ranking fourth-highest nationally for installed capacity, South Carolina has lagged far behind.

The difference: North Carolina’s 2007 renewable-portfolio standard, which created markets for solar developers and investment tax credits.

“We haven’t had an RPS, and that’s going to move it,” said Dukes Scott of South Carolina’s Office of Regulatory Staff, which advocates for the public interest. “And, of course, North Carolina is a lot bigger than South Carolina.”

Duke Energy counts about 2,000 North Carolina customers with rooftop solar systems, compared to about 200 in South Carolina.

“South Carolina may be slower out of the starting gates, but we now have a good map of where solar can go in the future,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.