Solar energy plan fails to move SC senators

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 17, 2013 

— For the second time this year, a single electric industry representative spoke against solar friendly legislation that is supposed to make sun panels more affordable for homeowners.

And for the second time this year, legislators deferred voting on the measure – even though most speakers at a hearing Wednesday agreed the solar bill would help lower energy costs for churches, schools and homeowners.

A Senate committee’s reluctance to vote on the bill didn’t surprise solar energy boosters, who said South Carolina’s electric utilities and cooperatives are a formidable opponent with a powerful grip on the Legislature.

“It’s not a secret that the utilities have an incredible amount of influence up here’’ at the State House, said Hamilton Davis, an energy analyst with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “They’re probably the most powerful special interest.

“Until we get leadership in the Legislature that changes these policies and allows people to have access to these types of technologies (such as affordable solar), it is going to be a utility-run game.’’

In 2012, South Carolina’s major power companies and electric cooperatives association collectively spent more than $800,000 lobbying the Legislature, according to the S.C. Ethics Commission.

Utilities worry that if the bill passes, solar companies would set up shop in South Carolina and sell sun-power directly to customers – a system that eventually could draw revenue away from them. In 2011, SCE&G filed a complaint against a solar company that wanted to provide free solar panels for churches, schools and nonprofit groups. The company then left South Carolina without providing the panels.

A House committee derailed a companion solar bill in February after hearing complaints from a single representative of SCE&G. On Wednesday, the Senate committee heard from the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. Every other speaker supported the bill.

Mike Couick, who heads the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said the state isn’t ready for changes proposed in the solar bill. He said the state should conduct a pilot solar energy project to see how it works first.

“What I need is a recognition that this bill is not the solution,’’ Couick said. “This bill is a means to an end, and I believe it is a mistaken means to an end.’’

Those in favor of the bill, including Georgia tax attorney Lee Peterson and Charleston businessman Grant Reeves, said solar energy is a good investment for South Carolina, one of the nation’s least friendly states for sun power. Reeves said people want affordable solar power because traditional electricity bills are skyrocketing.

The sub-panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed the bill needed more study, although members said they would hold another meeting to hear more from power companies. Those on the committee include Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville.

The bill before the Legislature would make it possible for solar companies to help finance sun panels for homeowners.

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