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On Nov. 2, a worker with Alder Energy System installs the last of the solar panels at Bell Bay Solar Farm, which is located along U.S. Highway 701 near Conway and will serve the Grand Strand.
On Nov. 2, a worker with Alder Energy System installs the last of the solar panels at Bell Bay Solar Farm, which is located along U.S. Highway 701 near Conway and will serve the Grand Strand.

Bell Bay Solar Farm

The seeds that blossomed into the Bell Bay Solar Farm were planted back in September of 2001. That’s when Santee Cooper launched Green Power, the state’s first program to offer renewable energy to customers. The unique vision was to use the funds collected from Green Power sales to build new generation and develop renewable energy sources right here in South Carolina.

“Bell Bay is the first utility-scale solar station to be brought on our system entirely using Green Power funds,” said Stephen Spivey, Santee Cooper’s manager of renewable energy. “Over the last 16 years, we have built Green Power Solar School demonstration units all across South Carolina. They have become a real educational tool for the schools and for us. We’ve learned a lot about the technology, including its benefits and its limitations.”

A birds-eye view of the construction progress at Bell Bay Solar Farm.
A birds-eye view of the construction progress at Bell Bay Solar Farm.

The Bell Bay Solar Farm was built on a 10.03-acre tract, about 7.5 miles south southwest of Conway. It sits along U.S. Highway 701, adjacent to the newly completed Bucksville transmission substation and Thompson Farm distribution substation.

“We’re always on the lookout for cost-effective renewable generation,” said    Santee Cooper Senior Engineer Elizabeth Kress. “At Bell Bay it all came together. We were even able to aim the solar panels to maximize generation and match our summer peak load.”

There’s science behind that. The way that customers along the Grand Strand use electricity daily has a pattern. As a rule, in the summer months, folks use less electricity in the morning, more during the heat of the day and then less as the sun creeps down. The highest point where the most electricity is used is called the peak. 

The above graph demonstrates how changing the angle of the solar panels can maximize usage of the power produced.  By changing the angle of the panels by 45 degrees, we can time-shift the power output of the station to more closely match the peak electricity use of our customers along the Grand Strand. This puts more solar power into use even for customers who don’t have panels at their home or business.
The above graph demonstrates how changing the angle of the solar panels can maximize usage of the power produced. By changing the angle of the panels by 45 degrees, we can time-shift the power output of the station to more closely match the peak electricity use of our customers along the Grand Strand. This puts more solar power into use even for customers who don’t have panels at their home or business.

Through a series of complex computations like azimuth, declination and tilt, Santee Cooper engineers devised a way to position the 5,904 solar panels to maximize power output and more reliably mirror peak summer usage. What that means is Bell Bay Solar Farm’s 1.56-megawatts AC power output is hitting the grid right when it’s needed most. Timing is everything.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but we actually sacrifice a little of the spring and fall output to better follow our summer peak,” added Kress.

It should come as no surprise that the Grand Strand is an increasingly popular summer tourist destination, with nearly 18 million people visiting during the summer of 2016. Along with that growth comes increasing demand for electricity and the opportunity for solar to help meet it.

Santee Cooper Senior Engineer Elizabeth Kress (right) and Darrin Green, Alder Energy Systems project manager, discuss the plans for Bell Bay Solar Farm.
Santee Cooper Senior Engineer Elizabeth Kress (right) and Darrin Green, Alder Energy Systems project manager, discuss the plans for Bell Bay Solar Farm.

“The Myrtle Beach area has a unique demand curve… the summer’s highest demand occurs in the late afternoon and early evening, so we have positioned our solar panels to catch the most sun possible during that time,” Kress said.

Of course, the asterisk that always accompanies solar is that power is only generated when the sun is shining. So, for now, the night life must be fueled by more traditional electricity sources.

Solar panels generate Direct Current (DC) while our homes and businesses use Alternating Current (AC). To turn the DC to AC requires the use of inverters. One innovation that makes Bell Bay an even more reliable generation source is it employs 28, 50 to 60 kilowatt (kW) inverters to do the job. By contrast, the Colleton Solar station uses five 250 kW inverters to do the same  job. Using more, smaller capacity units means the failure of any one unit, not an unheard of occurrence, puts less of the total output at risk.

In the end, the Bell Bay project is a promise realized, a promise that started with construction of the first Green Power gen- eration at Horry County Landfill. Green Power then helped fund the development of similar units in Anderson, Berkeley, Georgetown, Lee and Richland counties, and now the Bell Bay Solar Farm. More than that, it’s a promise for the future.