Earlier this month, a rather under-the-radar Charleston company won an impressive honor in South Carolina’s business world. SolBright Renewable Energy, an engineering, construction, and procurement firm, took first place at an annual banquet for the state’s 25 fastest growing companies, sponsored by Palmetto State business groups.
SolBright does projects for solar installations at commercial, military and municipal facilities throughout the nation, and owns solar generators in multiple states. The company earned its fastest-growing company status based on its revenue percentage growth and employee growth over a three-year period.
Here’s the funny thing: SolBright, a multi-million dollar company, which is headquartered in the SCRA building on Meeting Street downtown, only generates about 5 percent of its revenues from inside South Carolina’s borders.
Compared to other states that have passed laws friendly to the industry, the Palmetto State has been notoriously slow to embrace solar energy. Lawmakers have generally capitulated to the state's big utility companies, blocking attempts at opening up a solar market here, unlike North Carolina and Georgia where solar is flourishing.
“As it relates to investment tax credits on the state side, we have a $35,000 state income tax credit that can be realized over 10 years, but relative to our neighboring states it’s quite insignificant,” says SolBright’s managing director Patrick Hassell. “So if you’re a regional organization that invests in this, you’re going to pick another state before you do the South Carolina side.”
So, why does he stay in South Carolina?
“Charleston has the quality of life aspect that’s hard to beat, but also my family moved here in 1983,” he says. “I grew up here and went to Wando High School, went off to school out of state, got trapped in Atlanta for about 15 years professionally, and had an opportunity to get back here in early 2009 and decided to do that with the understanding that this was kind of an emerging market. We knew South Carolina had the chance to — it wasn’t going to be overnight — but that we could get it moving. We thought it would be faster of course.”
This month, the S.C. Energy Advisory Council (EAC) is expected to drop a landmark study on South Carolina’s solar issues, which pro-solar sources and the environmental community hope will make their pitches to lawmakers on the industry easier during the next legislative session that begins in January.
“The Legislature has not yet deemed renewable energy as an economic development boon for the state,” says Andrew Streit, director of product management for SolBright, who works in Columbia dealing with lawmakers.. “I’m hoping things will change this session. There has been so much press about the state’s position on energy, but also national press on the solar prices continuing to fall and actually beginning to compete with conventional energy.”
Streit says there have been talks about the company relocating because of the state’s sluggish stance on solar. “We do so much more business in the mid-Atlantic and North Carolina,” he says. “The taxes paid in North Carolina may make it worth our while to move our business there.”
For his part, Hassell says he’s content to stick around. “I really do think there’s an opportunity to grow an industry in this state with the talented people that are here currently and others who would like to get into the space,” he says. “We’re still in the first or second inning in this game as far as anyone is concerned in the industry.”
He admits, however, that in the solar community nationwide, South Carolina isn’t much of a player. “It’s not even on the map.”