Study: Utilities should brace for solar power rise

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 26, 2013 

Rev. Wiley Cooper, a retired minister is leading a crusade to make state law more friendly for solar power. He has solar panels on his house on Colonial Drive in Columbia.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— South Carolina utilities should prepare for the rise of solar power as more people use rooftop sun panels and make their own electricity at the expense of power companies, a much-anticipated study says.

The draft report, written by a legislatively appointed committee, makes no specific recommendations on how to handle more solar demand. Nor does the study suggest how to resolve a dispute between utilities and sun power advocates over making rooftop solar more accessible in South Carolina.

But it does strongly acknowledge that the popularity of solar power is increasing in a state that historically has been reluctant to embrace the sun as an energy source.

“We are poised on the edge of a sea-change that requires proactive policymaking,” the study says.

The 87-page study says the state faces “a paradigm shift” in the way it will get power in the future. No longer will South Carolina rely only on a few large utility-owned power plants, but it will increasingly draw energy from privately owned solar panels spread across the landscape, according to the report. The study, to be discussed at a Dec. 11 Public Utilities Review Committee meeting, follows months of work by a small panel of the committee.

Some people have waited on its completion so that certain solar bills could be debated in 2014. One bill to make rooftop solar easier for homeowners to afford never made it out of the Legislature in 2013 after utility interests said lawmakers should wait until the report was finished.

Nationally, solar energy is an increasingly popular way of making power because it can reduce electric bills. Rooftop sun panels typically are used to cut the amount of energy needed from the local utility. Most people use a mixture of sun power and traditional energy because solar doesn’t work at night. Unlike nuclear and coal, solar power does not generate waste or air pollution.

But South Carolina has been one of the least friendly states in the country toward solar energy, despite an abundance of sunshine. Influential utilities have either fought rules to encourage more solar energy or done little to advance solar legislation that could help consumers, fearing lost revenues, The State newspaper reported last year.

While the study released this week says the state should get ready for more rooftop solar, it also says South Carolina and its utilities must be aware that accommodating new sources of energy will take planning. Concerns include how utilities will tap solar into the power grid and whether solar energy could increase power bills for non-solar customers.

Among other findings, the study says:

•  The bill to make solar power more affordable could cost utilities $55 million in the next decade, but that’s only a fraction of the $7 billion in revenues they’re expected to rake in.

•  People who put solar panels on their roofs to avoid buying power company electricity won’t have much initial impact on utility rates for other customers. But that could change as more people tap into sun power. Utility interests have questioned whether non-solar customers would have to pay the difference when solar customers reduce the amount of electricity they need from power companies.

•  Utilities might consider new charges to offset a large increase in solar power use.

•  More studies are needed to see how much rooftop solar utilities can accommodate and whether adding more solar to the power grid will affect electric transmission systems in South Carolina.

•  State leaders must develop a process on how more customer-generated solar energy can be absorbed into the power grid.

Hamilton Davis, who tracks energy issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the study doesn’t include everything his organization wanted, but it’s a good compromise – and it recognizes changes that South Carolina has in the past been slow to embrace. The report’s findings follow recent announcements by utilities that they would ramp up the use of renewable energy.

Solar “is happening; it’s going to get bigger and bigger and be a major part of how we meet future energy demand,” said Davis, who was on the committee that wrote the report. “South Carolina has been a poster child of delay in the face of uncertainty.”

John Frick, a vice-president for the state’s electrical cooperatives, said the report provides solid information “that the General Assembly can use to be really very fully educated on the issue.”

SCE&G issued a statement saying the report is the work of “many organizations from utilities, regulators, the Coastal Conservation League and others.”

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