Wiley Cooper says he was frustrated when an electric utility prevented his church from acquiring a money-saving solar power system last year.
Now, he’s leading a crusade to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The retired Methodist minister recently launched a petition drive that he hopes will make installing solar panels cheaper and easier for South Carolina churches, homeowners and others. He intends to seek a change in state law when the Legislature returns in January.
“Powerful utilities want you to buy their electricity, not create your own,” Cooper’s petition says. “Let’s change that.”
Cooper already has picked up support. One Columbia legislator said the law needs changing and a fellow minister said it’s “immoral’’ to keep churches and charities from using solar power. Dozens of people have signed the petition since it started several weeks ago.
At issue is a state law that grants power companies exclusive rights to sell energy in their territories. Power companies say any firm wanting to sell solar energy, no matter how small, must be licensed as a utility – an expensive and involved process.
And that’s one reason solar companies that provide free or low-cost solar panels stay clear of South Carolina. These businesses often are paid back by selling power from the panels to the homeowners at a rate they can better afford.
Critics say South Carolina law is a significant barrier to those who want solar energy but can’t afford the upfront expense of buying panels. It can easily cost more than $20,000 to buy solar panels for a private home – more for churches and large buildings. These concerns are among broader questions about the state’s lack of commitment to solar power.
Without high up-front costs, solar panels can save people money on their monthly power bills by reducing the amount of energy needed from the electric company. Typically, folks who use solar panels also receive energy from power companies at night or during rainy periods.
The 69-year-old Cooper, a former S.C. United Way director, said it’s hard to understand why churches in other states can benefit from low-cost solar but the law restricts the practice in South Carolina.
“We need to remove as many barriers as we can,” Cooper said. “You can’t do in South Carolina what is now being done with solar energy in other states.”
At least 22 states, mostly in the West and Northeast, allow solar companies to provide free solar panels to homeowners and sell the power directly to them, according to a federally supported database of renewable energy policies. Typically, the monthly amount paid to a solar company for the energy is enough for a property owner to reduce the overall power bill.
None of those states is in the South, where regulation often limits their entry. But some Western states, including Arizona, specifically exempt charities, schools and churches from restrictions that would prevent them from getting free solar panels.
Bruce Wood, chairman of the S.C. Solar Council, said exempting charities and churches might be the most realistic way to resolve the issue in South Carolina.
Joshua Pearce, an energy researcher from Queens University in Canada, said allowing solar companies into states can be critical to the expansion of sun power. Pearce has analyzed the economics of solar and nuclear policies in North America.
“This is very important,” he said. “The typical homeowner doesn’t have the capital in his bank account to put in a photovoltaic (solar panel) system.”
Cooper’s crusade began a few weeks ago in response to a dispute that erupted last year between SCE&G and a small New England solar company.
DCS Energy Inc. had planned to provide S.C. churches and nonprofits with free solar panels. In return for not charging monthly energy payments, DCS would keep tax incentives and renewable energy credits typically provided to the owners of solar panels. It also would receive federal stimulus money.
But in September 2011, SCE&G filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission, citing state law and contending that DCS Energy should be regulated as a utility.
The solar company then voided about 80 contracts it had in South Carolina and left the state, saying that it didn’t have the resources to fight SCE&G, The State newspaper reported in March. Among those counting on the free panels was Washington Street United Methodist Church, where Cooper worships Sunday mornings.
Cooper said solar power could have helped his church and others cut their power bills, but he also said it would have been better for the environment. Coal plants release mercury, arsenic and carbon dioxide, while nuclear plants produce piles of deadly atomic waste.
Whether Cooper’s petition drive will make a difference may depend on cooperation from the state’s utilities. South Carolina’s power companies and electric cooperatives have a strong team of lobbyists at the State House, and they often are effective at getting their way.
So far, they haven’t expressed much interest in Cooper’s effort.
Utilities complained last year about a solar tax credits bill that they feared would open the door for “third-party sales” of electricity by owner/operators of solar installations, state records show.
SCE&G, which serves the Midlands, declined to discuss possible legislation that would allow third-party sales by solar companies in its territory. But SCE&G did say state law requires any business wanting to sell power in South Carolina to become licensed as a utility, just like power companies.
The company also hinted that allowing solar companies into the state could create confusion among utilities. It would be up to the S.C. Public Service Commission to decide how a solar company operates in the state, SCE&G said. The PSC has never issued a ruling on whether solar power companies are legal in South Carolina.
“Only registered utilities are allowed to sell electricity to retail customers in South Carolina,” the company said in an email to The State. “If multiple utilities were to serve one retail customer, a determination will be needed on which utility, if any, is obligated to provide the reliable (backup) service when the renewable generator under-performs.”
Santee Cooper, which has drawn criticism over plans to raise power bills for some churches, declined comment. The state-owned utility serves eastern South Carolina.
Duke Energy Inc., a multi-state company with territory in northern and western South Carolina, said solar companies that sell power to customers should be treated the same as the big power companies. Duke said solar energy provides power to the company’s electrical grid from multiple sources.
Today, the company is used to getting much of its power from a centralized generation plant, much as utilities have for decades.
“Solar energy challenges this business model,” Duke said in an email.
Despite hesitation from power companies, the Rev. Cooper has support from the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and other environmental groups, which say the state should do more to embrace nonpolluting solar energy.
The Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which represents environmental groups at the State House, agreed earlier this month to make solar-friendly legislation a priority in 2013.
Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said he hopes something changes.
Existing state law “has made it very difficult for solar companies to introduce this technology to the grass roots,” Neal said. “As this is happening all over the country, it is not happening in South Carolina.”
Pastor Jimmy Jones, director of Christ Central Ministries in Columbia, said changes in state law would help his charity. Like Cooper’s Washington Street United Methodist, Christ Central lost out on solar panels after the DCS-SCE&G dispute. The ministry continues to pay high power bills, which keeps it from spending that money on the poor, said Jones who blames SCE&G.
“SCE&G said, ‘We want the money,’” Jones said. “It is immoral – immoral to try to stop people from helping themselves.”