SC Public Service Commission to re-examine solar power rules

sfretwell@thestate.comJune 27, 2013 

A solar panel on Furman University campus helps heat and light campus facilities.

SAMMY FRETWELL — sfretwell@thestate.com Buy Photo

— The state utilities commission will take another look at solar energy rules that are blamed for hampering the expansion of sun-power in South Carolina.

In an unusual decision Thursday, the Public Service Commission agreed to hold an interactive public workshop Sept. 12 to discuss key policies that govern solar energy.

The PSC will review the state’s five-year-old rules on net metering, a program intended to help people, businesses and nonprofit groups more easily use solar power in South Carolina.

Renewable energy advocates say the program needs updating because of increasing interest in solar energy in a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive controls on sun power.

The net-metering program includes a cap on the amount of solar energy allowed for those who use a combination of sun power and energy from utilities – and that is beginning to limit businesses and schools.

The 100-kilowatt cap has hampered Furman University’s ability to add more solar power at the campus north of Greenville, The State newspaper reported Thursday. Furman, a regional leader in green campus initiatives, has reached the 100-kilowatt limit, university officials told the newspaper.

It might be possible for Furman to strike a deal with Duke Energy to exceed the cap, but energy observers say increasing the cap above 100 kilowatts would better protect the school and others. Any deal negotiated to exceed the cap likely would be weighted toward the power company – and reaching such an accord is more complex, utilities observers say.

Nationally, about two dozen states have less restrictive caps for non-residential customers than South Carolina, according to a 2013 report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

People who generate electricity from solar panels need less power from utilities, which saves them money on power bills. Solar energy also reduces reliance on energy produced from nuclear and coal-fired power plants. Coal plants are a major contributor of gases that cause global warming.

The commission, by a 2009 state agreement, is required to review the solar net-metering rules sometime this year. The agency recently indicated that renewable energy is of substantial interest to the public. The solar net-metering policy is one of several “important mechanisms in the national energy policy of encouraging renewable energy resources,” an April 10 commission filing said.

Representatives from utilities did not speak at Thursday’s meeting, but they have been hesitant to embrace widespread solar use because of the potential loss of revenue.

Dukes Scott, director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, said the workshop forum is not a typical way for the PSC to address issues. But it is a welcome change for some. Officials with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League said it would provide for greater public participation than a formal hearing or presentation.

“We think that is a much more constructive way to do it,” said Kenneth Sercy, an energy analyst with Coastal Conservation League. “There will be more of an exchange between different parties.”

Meanwhile Thursday, the PSC reversed course and voted to let the Coastal Conservation League become an official party in the debate, meaning it could legally challenge any decision not to increase the cap. The commission had previously denied the league’s formal participation.

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