USDA investing $2.8 million in SC to spur rural solar power

Nine South Carolina farms and businesses will build enough solar panels to power more than 600 homes as part of federal grants and loans announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The $2.8 million headed to South Carolina is part of $121 million in federal spending through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs aimed at slowing climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and at lowering businesses’ energy costs.

A $2.25 million low-cost loan will go to Woodfields Solar to build a solar farm in Greenwood that could supply enough electricity for an estimated 485 homes. USDA grants ranging from $9,600 to $107,000 will help eight farms and manufacturing businesses put solar panels on rooftops in small towns scattered across the state. Among them are Clover Knits fabric manufacturing in York County, Double B Poultry in Aiken County, Metal Masters in Newberry County and Red Legged Rooster in Chesterfield County.

“Rural America is on the front lines of climate change, and our communities deserve investments that will strengthen all of our resilience,” USDA Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh said in a press release.

The sum headed to South Carolina is more than all but seven other states. North Carolina will get $19 million, third-most in the nation. Georgia businesses are set to receive $649,000.

The grants cover 25 percent of the cost of a project. The USDA expects a spike in applications next year because the recently passed climate change law increases those grants to cover 50 percent.

“A dental office may want to do a solar array. Of if you want to do LED lighting. If the audit shows that you’re doing energy savings, it’s going to be eligible,” said Tim Ellis, USDA business and cooperatives program director in South Carolina. “It’s good for clean energy and also the profitability of the company because energy costs are rising.”

Last year, 11 South Carolina companies received about $25.3 million through the same USDA program, again with the vast majority in a loan for a large solar farm in Lexington County.

The number of new solar projects in the state tripled between 2018 and 2020, following a 2019 state law that encourages solar energy production.

“It really changed the landscape … and now we’re seeing a lot more solar farms pop up all over the state,” Ellis said.

A solar farm installed at W.E. Parker Elementary School in Edgefield. Provided

Solar power generates about 3 percent of South Carolina’s electricity, or enough to power more than 225,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. North Carolina produces about four times as much solar energy as South Carolina, while Georgia produces twice as much. More than half of South Carolina’s electricity production comes from nuclear power, but South Carolina uses twice as much electricity as it produces.

The federal government plans to spend more than $500 billion on climate and clean energy in the next decade, according to an analysis by the nonprofit RMI. The figure includes spending in the new climate change law as well as two other recent laws.

The analysis found that federal spending on climate change is set to be at least 3½ times higher than from 2009 to 2017 and 15 times higher than in the 1990s and 2000s.