SC ministers ask politicians for solar friendly SC law

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2013 

— Gloria Day managed a dejected smile Tuesday after watching a small group of legislators shoot down a plan that could have helped cut the power bill at the senior citizens home where she lives in Charleston.

The home pays more than $240,000 for electricity each year but could defray the cost by installing solar energy panels.

So Day, 71, drove to Columbia in hopes of persuading lawmakers to pass solar legislation that would make sun power more affordable to install for senior citizen homes, churches, charities and schools across South Carolina.

But state legislators put the freeze on the solar energy plan, saying they were uncomfortable with how it might affect utilities and their customers. Virtually everyone who testified at a hearing, including outspoken Columbia minister Wiley Cooper, said the bill would help homeowners, charities and churches afford solar power systems that could cut energy costs.

The only opponent was a representative of South Carolina’s influential utilities: SCE&G, Duke Energy and Santee Cooper, as well as the state’s electrical cooperatives.

“We’ve got some strong opposition,” said Day, a former Columbia resident. “I understand who our opponents are. They are the utilities.”

Tuesday’s action to adjourn debate on the bill severely damages its chances of getting out of the House this year, said Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat who sponsored the legislation. Smith and solar energy boosters said they expect a bill to be introduced soon in the Senate, where it would have a better chance.

At issue is a South Carolina law that discourages solar energy companies from locating in the state and making sun panels cheaper for people to afford. It’s widely accepted that solar panels can cut monthly power bills, but many people do not install them in South Carolina because of the upfront costs – often more than $20,000.

Solar energy companies provide low-cost financing to help people install sun panels. These companies, which operate in nearly two dozen states, make the bulk of their money by drawing down on federal tax credits and other tax breaks, which they say allows them to charge less than banks.

Utilities argue, however, that solar companies are in effect power companies. That means they should go through the lengthy and expensive process of being regulated as a utility – a prospect that has scared solar companies away from South Carolina. The bill seeks to lift any restrictions on solar.

Bob Long, a representative for the state’s power companies, urged the committee to study the issue more thoroughly this year before acting. Utilities have been hesitant to back solar-friendly legislation. Solar boosters say that’s because utilities fear competition.

“We ... speak with concern about this bill but offer that we would like to continue to study its implications,” Long said.

Republican Reps. Bill Sandifer of Seneca, Dennis Moss of Gaffney and Phillip Lowe of Florence questioned whether allowing solar companies into South Carolina would cost existing ratepayers.

But alternate energy advocates said solar companies are allowed in many other states – and Smith said South Carolina should follow suit.

Solar businessman Dave McNeil, who spent 30 years in the army and is a former base commander at Fort Dix, N.J., said the Palmetto State’s restrictive policies eventually could wallop South Carolina’s economy. Energy security is likely to be considered as part of the equation on which military bases to close, he said. Because South Carolina discourages solar leasing companies, bases in this state can’t easily install solar like their counterparts in other states, he said.

For Day, Tuesday’s vote was a blow against the public and in favor of utilities.

“From my reading, the utilities got a lot from this committee today,” she said.

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