Solar power now a new crop at some farms

Charles Long surveys the landscape at his farmland, now converted into a solar farm with mirrored panels generating power for a local utility. (Staff photo by Tony Baughman)

A 30-acre pasture on Charles Long’s farm near Saluda supplies electricity to hundreds of homes instead of hamburger, roasts and steaks as it once did.

Mr. Long’s field is in the vanguard of a solar power boom blossoming across the Midlands. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think about this,” he said.

His pasture on US Highway 378 is among a half dozen such farms opened in recent months in rural parts of Lexington and Saluda counties near Pelion and Johnston. That number is expected to increase after the Legislature this spring repealed limits that threatened to chill expansion of the industry.

There are slightly more than 18,000 solar power systems in South Carolina today that produce nearly one percent of electricity, officials at the Solar Energy Industries Association say.

Supporters tout solar power as a money-saver as well as environmentally friendly. The panels help users reduce the need to buy energy supplied by utilities during the day, as well as getting a break on power bills for supplying any excess for other users. And solar power doesn’t pollute the air or produce waste as do traditional sources like coal and nuclear power.

Despite initial skepticism, Mr. Long decided to check out the possibility of leasing part of his 300-acre cattle farm for solar power production a few years ago. “I didn’t think it was going to be feasible,” he said. “I wasn’t scientific at all.”

But officials at what was then South Carolina Electric and Gas – now Dominion Energy of South Carolina – decided the sunny pasture fit the bill since it was near a power substation that could receive such energy and distribute it as needed. Motorists passing by today see hundreds of panels in the $6.5 million project that produces enough power for about 600 homes.

Association officials predict the 780 megawatts of solar-powered electricity produced across the state today will increase to nearly 1,900 in the next five years, enough to provide energy for 200,000 homes.

Mr. Long, 62, a fifth-generation farmer, likewise expects more solar farms will be popping up nearby, His lease of the pasture is more profitable than breeding cattle and raising hay for feed for other farmers, he said.

It’s also less demanding, he added. “That isn’t a lot of work like my cows are,” he said. “Those panels don’t get out and wander like my cows do.”

Story by Tim Flach / Posted August 23, 2019