SC utility interests stop solar meeting

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 23, 2013 

— South Carolina’s electric cooperatives have stopped a solar energy forum that was supposed to let people explain how the state can improve its sun power rules, which are among the least customer friendly in the country.

The S.C. Public Service Commission chose not to hold the Sept. 12 public workshop after receiving a request from the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, a state organization that represents rural power suppliers. The state Office of Regulatory Staff supported the cooperatives’ effort to put off the workshop.

The cooperatives, which have been cool to the idea of solar energy expansion, said it’s too soon to have a workshop since a legislative committee already is studying alternate energy issues in South Carolina. The Public Utilities Review Committee has commissioned a report to be completed by Dec. 31. The cooperatives are helping to develop the report.

But solar power advocates and a former state energy official said the PSC should have held the workshop anyway. There is no harm in a public meeting to discuss how state rules discourage sun power in South Carolina – regardless of when the legislative committee completes its report, they said.

“I know of no good reason that open public discussion of the costs and benefits of solar energy should not occur,” said John Clark, former director of the S.C. Energy Office. “Open public discussion in the PSC forum should occur – and it should occur now.”

Solar energy is growing in interest because making power from the sun can lower power bills for homeowners, schools and businesses. Since solar panels produce energy for free, less power is needed from electrical utilities. Solar panels also do not release any pollution or toxic waste, unlike coal and nuclear plants.

Despite that, restrictive rules that protect utilities make it harder in South Carolina for people, schools and businesses to afford solar panels. And those that do install panels also can run into problems.

Furman University, for instance, has reached a state limit of 100 kilowatts on solar energy capacity by businesses and schools – and that limits the university’s ability to add sun panels to help heat and light its Greenville campus.

About two dozen states have substantially less restrictive caps than South Carolina, including Florida and North Carolina, national reports have found.

“We were hoping that the meeting would take place, so discussion could occur,” said Jeff Redderson, Furman’s associate vice president for facility and campus services.

The PSC has authority to raise the cap that is limiting Furman and starting to affect some businesses. That’s why solar advocates said it’s important for the commission to hear about the issues.

Critics say power companies see solar as a threat to their profits and blocking the PSC meeting reflects that concern.

“It appears to me that the anti-solar folks don’t want solar discussed in a forum where everyone gets to speak,” Clark said.

John Frick, the electric cooperatives’ vice president for government relations, said the issues that were to be discussed at the Sept. 12 forum focused on only part of the alternative energy picture, but the legislative committee is looking more comprehensively at the issues.

“The work is already being done,” Frick said. “There is an opportunity for input and discussion that already exists.”

He noted that in its decision, the PSC did not stop people from commenting in writing. The agency, which regulates investor owned utilities such as Duke Energy and SCE&G, will take comments through Sept. 30.

Utilities contend that adding solar power to their electrical grid isn’t as technologically simple as advocates say. They also question whether people who use a combination of their own solar and traditional energy from the power company would drive up rates for others – a point hotly disputed by solar advocates. Most people with solar panels rely partially on power companies because the sun doesn’t always shine.

South Carolina has some of the toughest laws against money-saving solar power in the country, but some of the highest utility rates in the South.

Unlike 29 other states, South Carolina does not require power companies to draw certain percentages of their energy from alternate sources, such as wind and solar, according to a national data base of renewable energy statistics maintained by N.C. State University and funded partially by the federal government.

South Carolina’s solar tax incentives are small compared to neighboring states, such as North Carolina. State law discourages solar energy companies from setting up shop and providing low-cost sun panels to homeowners.

And South Carolina ranks dead last among other states in two key renewable energy policies that are supposed to help homeowners afford and install solar, according to recent studies by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

In addition to those obstacles, critics say state utilities are so focused on building nuclear plants, such as twin units SCE&G is erecting northwest of Columbia, that power companies aren’t paying enough attention to renewable energy.

The PSC, which under a 2009 agreement was scheduled to re-examine some solar issues this year, voted in June to hold the Sept. 12 session. The session was to focus on the program criticized by the Renewable Energy Council in its recent studies. The program is called net-metering.

Most people who install solar panels on homes or businesses do so in tandem with energy from the local power company. Net metering simply allows them to get credit for the energy they produce, which cuts the amount of power they need from a utility and lowers their power bills. The 100-kilowatt limit Furman is struggling with is contained in the net-metering rules.

Hamilton Davis, energy issues director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the state’s net-metering rules need improvement with less restrictive caps on individuals, as well as a less-restrictive overall statewide cap.

Clark said arguments to conduct other studies aren’t valid.

“In my opinion, ‘delay’ and ‘more study’ are simply code words for South Carolina falling further behind the rest of the country in progressive renewable energy policy,” Clark said. “This doesn’t need more study. Dozens of states finished their studies years ago and are moving ahead. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or the solar panel. It is long past time to look at what works well in other states and simply implement progressive programs here.”

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