South Carolina’s Electricity Sector and Climate Change

After hearing the dire reports issued by the US government and the United Nations regarding the effects of climate change, I’ve read a lot about what some areas are doing to reduce carbon emissions. However, I’ve become curious locally if South Carolina is making any progress in this realm. I want to first start this investigation by looking at the electrical generating sector of South Carolina.

A good starting point is to see the makeup of South Carolina’s electrical generation in 2018 (these numbers from the EIA only go from January to October 2018):

Type of GenerationMegawatt Hours [MWH] generatedPercentage of Total Generation
Nuclear45,291,42052.57%
Natural Gas19,512,78922.65%
Coal16,447,39419.09%
Wood/Wood-Derived Fuels2,019,4712.34%
Hydroelectric1,900,0942.21%
Solar (Thermal & Photovoltaic)535,9810.62%
Petroleum252,7730.29%
Other Biomass162,8460.19%
Other33,9760.04%

Source: U.S. Department of Energy, The Energy Information Administration (EIA). Monthly Generation Data by State, Producer Sector and Energy Source; Months Through October 2018, sourced from EIA-923 Report.

Once you consider the full emissions cycle of a nuclear power plant, it’s not exactly renewable. The amount of emissions created in the construction and destruction of such behemoths are not negligible. Neither the mining nor processing of the uranium necessary to create the nuclear fission reaction are negligible emitters. Also, consider the amount of capital invested in the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactors that could have been spent on more renewable energy production and storage.

However, that being said, the large amount of South Carolina production that is nuclear is beneficial in keeping bad emissions down. South Carolina’s high proportion in nuclear is one of the highest in the country. Natural gas has topped coal in the Palmetto State as the second biggest generator of electricity. While the emissions of natural gas are somewhat better than coal, we still need to see both of them going away sooner rather than later. However, due to the cheap prices of natural gas at the moment, this may prove difficult.

The most obvious way to increase renewable energy production is to build more solar installations, whether at a utility, commercial, or residential level. Solar has taken off since a 2014 net metering bill was passed that allowed for consumers to sell back excess power at retail prices. Solar production went from nearly zero in 2016 to exploding in 2017. However, due to net metering caps that came into play in 2018, where pricing would no longer be paid for at full retail prices, the growth has not been as explosive. See below for a graph I produced showing month-by-month generation of solar thermal and photovoltaic energy in the state from Jan 2017 to Oct 2018.

Source: Energy Information Administration, Graphic by Palmettoponderings.com

Let’s hope that three key things happen in the near future to drive South Carolina’s electricity emissions down:

  1. The South Carolina legislature comes up with some deal that sets reasonable prices for net metering. They may not be able to get utilities to agree to retail pricing again since solar is more popular, but an agreement on a higher price needs to occur.
  2. Battery storage becomes cheaper. Many companies are out there researching battery chemistry that can do grid-scale storage. Lithium is simply too expensive and does not have the lifespan necessary to do widespread storage. Until battery technologies advance, utility companies will continue to argue they need stable baseloads that can produce when the sun isn’t shining and people are flipping A/C, heat, or lights on.
  3. Offshore wind farms start being developed off the coast. Although wind does die down somewhat at night, this is a tried and true large scale renewable technology that could help reduce some storage requirements and help lessen the famous duck curve of renewables.


About Lewis Maxey