COLUMBIA, SC — A new plan surfaced Tuesday to make solar energy more affordable for homeowners, churches and schools looking to save money on costly power bills.
State Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, introduced a bill making it easier for solar energy companies to locate in South Carolina and offer lower-cost panels. South Carolina law now discourages solar companies from locating here.
The House derailed similar legislation last month after the state’s major power companies complained. Utilities are concerned about competition from the solar industry and have been cool to sun-friendly legislation in recent years.
But Hamilton Davis, who tracks renewable energy issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the Senate appears more receptive to solar legislation than the House committee that discussed a similar bill in mid February.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from a broad array of senators on this,” Davis said.
If installed on a person’s roof, solar panels can reduce a homeowner’s reliance on electricity from the local power company. Sun panels cut the monthly electric bill because less energy is needed from power companies. But installing solar panels can easily exceed $20,000 for a homeowner — more for churches and schools — so many people don’t put them up in South Carolina.
It’s a different story in many western and northeastern states, where solar-friendly laws allow leasing companies to operate and provide low-cost panels, The State newspaper reported last year.
Gregory said loosening tight state restrictions on solar energy companies not only could save people money but protect the environment. Solar panels don’t release any pollution in making energy from the sun.
“Solar is the wave of the future,” Gregory said.
Utilities in South Carolina say solar energy companies should be regulated as power companies because they are selling energy made on rooftops back to homeowners. A New England solar company that planned to provide free panels to churches in 2011 left South Carolina after SCE&G complained to the state Public Service Commission. The utility planned to draw on tax credits and government stimulus funds to make money.
SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said his company wants to make sure lawmakers “understand the implications’’ solar energy would have on the state’s electricity system. Power companies have questioned how solar hookups would affect the power grid, but sun boosters say utilities could handle the change. Boomhower said a state committee is studying the matter.
Rep. James Smith said he’s been talking with power companies about the need for the legislation and hopes to ease their concerns. But he said they need to realize solar power can’t be stopped.
“I know it will work, and the power companies know it will work,” Smith, D-Richland, said of expanding solar energy in the state. “If it didn’t work, they would not be so nervous. They are worried about it exploding in South Carolina.”