IN THE LEGISLATURE

Critics say SC solar bill shines first for Duke

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 2, 2014 

OLSolar panels on Furman activities center help heat the building.

SAMMY FRETWELL — sfretwell@thestate.com Buy Photo

Despite recent complaints from the rooftop solar industry, state senators overwhelmingly approved a sun-power bill Tuesday that they said will protect the state’s major utilities while advancing renewable energy in South Carolina.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 19-1 vote sends the compromise legislation to the upper chamber for consideration after months of discussion involving utilities, state solar-energy boosters and environmentalists.

Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said the bill moved from having “scant support ... initially, to now support across the board.”

But the bill before the full Senate continued to draw criticism from national rooftop solar groups, which said the compromise that led to Tuesday’s vote would give utilities a monopoly on sun power at public expense.

“We will continue to fight this; our efforts are not over,” said Mike Scerbo, a spokesman for TUSK America, a national solar organization headed by former U.S. Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr.

Bryan Miller, president of the Alliance for Solar Choice, said the vote was not surprising given the grip that influential utilities — namely Duke Energy — have on South Carolina politicians. He said his group also will fight approval of the bill.

“This is South Carolina politicians doing the bidding of Duke and allowing Duke to once again manipulate the political process to stop competition,” Miller said. “Duke gives a lot of money to candidates throughout the state.”

National solar power groups have descended on South Carolina in the past week to complain about the bill that originally was intended to help people afford rooftop solar panels — which now can cost more than $20,000 to install.

But a compromise announced two weeks ago has morphed the bill into a plan to help utilities corner the market, according to the alliance, which is headquartered in California.

The key concern is that utilities will be allowed to recover costs for launching solar programs, which the alliance says gives power companies an unfair advantage over the private solar market.

The expansion of the private solar market also would be capped by law, critics say.

Many of the nation’s leading rooftop solar companies, including Sun Run, Solar City and Sungevity, are members of the alliance.

Those companies provide free or low-cost sun panels to homeowners, then recoup their investments through monthly payments and tax credits. Most have stayed out of South Carolina, which historically has been considered hostile to renewable energy.

The Alliance for Solar Choice began contacting media outlets in South Carolina last week to complain about the bill. Both TUSK America and the alliance say utilities operating in South Carolina have hijacked the bill.

One 30-second YouTube spot, posted this week by TUSK America, uses Duke’s troubles with coal ash pollution in North Carolina to criticize the company’s support for the compromise solar bill in South Carolina. Federal authorities launched an investigation of Duke in February after a major coal ash spill in North Carolina.

“Duke wants to stop rooftop solar right here in South Carolina by changing the law to shut out competition,” the 30-second video says. “What will politicians say this time?”

Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier declined comment Tuesday, referring to a statement the company made Monday.

The statement says Duke supports the bill as amended. Duke serves the northern and western portions of South Carolina.

Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company that serves eastern South Carolina, also favors the bill and a spokeswoman questioned Tuesday why out-of-state interests are complaining.

“The South Carolina solar industry was at the table and helped craft this bill,” spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. “I’m not sure why somebody from California is getting involved.”

Sen. Greg Gregory, a Lancaster Republican who introduced the legislation last year, said he’s satisfied that the bill will improve the solar energy environment in South Carolina and help people who want to install solar.

“What this bill does is frees third-party users from regulation of the utilities,” he said, noting that South Carolina should embrace solar because “it doesn’t pollute and is available when it is needed, in the summertime, when energy cost is highest.”

The S.C. Solar Business Alliance and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League also said they continue to support the compromise sun bill. Hamilton Davis, the league’s energy director, said his group would not strike a deal that would help power companies at public expense. The group has fought numerous battles against utilities.

“We are not gun-shy about criticizing the utilities when criticism is warranted,” Davis said. “We don’t believe it is warranted when it comes to this solar bill.”

South Carolina’s solar market is tiny compared to western states, but also is smaller than some cloudier states, such as New Jersey.

Until recently, utilities in the Palmetto State had been reluctant to support changes in the law to help advance solar power, despite a growing public interest in rooftop panels. They have said solar power isn’t reliable because the sun doesn’t shine at night.

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