House votes to OK solar; energy supporters call vote historic

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 21, 2014 

South Carolina lawmakers took steps Wednesday to make it easier for solar energy to expand in South Carolina. This solar farm in Colorado resulted from state policies there that encourage solar.

— South Carolina took what is considered a historic step Wednesday to change the state’s longtime resistance to solar power.

The state House of Representatives voted 105-0 for a solar energy bill that is forecast to make sun-generated electricity more abundant in the Palmetto State. The compromise bill has support from South Carolina’s influential utilities and conservation groups, and a similar version of the measure has passed the Senate.

Solar energy supporters said the legislation will move the state out of the dark ages in its stance toward renewable power after years of dependence almost entirely on coal, nuclear and natural gas.

“This is truly a big deal, a giant step in moving South Carolina forward in renewable energy,’’ state Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, said.

The bill doesn’t resolve what sun power boosters say are all of the state’s solar challenges. Nor does it answer questions about how it might ultimately affect the utility rates for all power company customers, several legislators said Wednesday.

But many said the bill is a good start after two years of sometimes heated negotiations involving utilities, environmental groups, solar industry advocates and others.

Brown told fellow House members that the bill will help the state attract international businesses, lower energy costs for homeowners and protect the environment. Solar doesn’t produce waste like nuclear power plants or air pollution like coal plants.

Rep. Bill Sandifer, a Seneca Republican and one-time solar skeptic, said more than a dozen organizations agreed on the compromise legislation, which is notable. Those include the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the Southern Environmental Law Center, SCE&G, Duke Energy, the S.C. Farm Bureau and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

Conservation league energy director Hamilton Davis said South Carolina will be comparable to other Southern states that allow easier expansion of solar power.

House members are expected to give the bill a routine final approval Thursday before the Senate is asked to concur with relatively minor changes. Gov. Nikki Haley must sign the bill for it to become law.

Solar power has become increasingly popular across the country as an affordable, nonpolluting form of energy. Many states have adopted sun-friendly laws to help homeowners and businesses whittle down the expense of installing solar power systems, which can cost more than $15,000 to install per home.

But South Carolina historically has been among the states least interested in solar power because of concerns by power companies. The State newspaper chronicled solar’s obstacles in South Carolina in a series of stories in 2012. Lawmakers began working on legislation to improve the solar energy environment in early 2013.

Power companies agreed to the compromise legislation because it allows them to recover some additional costs they say could result from expanded sun programs. Debate before the state Public Service Commission about those costs could occur as soon as this fall, if the bill passes. Some lawmakers questioned whether utilities will incur any expense in adding solar, raising doubt about the need for cost recovery that could affect electricity rates.

A cornerstone of the proposed law revolves around the increased use of solar power by utilities, such as SCE&G and Duke Energy. By 2021, investor-owned utilities would buy or invest in more solar power. The rules say participating utilities must get 2 percent of their average five-year peak power demand from the sun.

That could increase the amount of solar energy installed in the state to 300 megawatts or more, according to supporters of the new solar law. About 7 megawatts of solar power are now installed in South Carolina, a small amount compared with other states nationally and regionally. Renewable power boosters say more sun farms are expected to pop up as solar friendly rules take effect in South Carolina.

The legislation also sharply raises one of the nation’s most restrictive caps on the use of solar power by businesses and universities. The cap would be 1 megawatt, instead of the current 100 kilowatt limit for nonresidential solar energy.

Additionally, the legislation allows third-party leasing, a way of lowering the cost of rooftop solar that is virtually nonexistent in South Carolina. Davis said the state would be one of the first in the South to allow leasing.

The law, however, would delay the start of the third-party system until another issue is resolved before the state Public Service Commission.

PSC members must decide the rates at which utilities should credit people and businesses for producing solar power from rooftops. Homeowners and businesses seeking to install less expensive solar power systems likely would have to wait a year, or more, for third party leases to become available. Nonprofit groups also would have to wait.

Currently, anyone with rooftop solar panels can provide excess sun power to electrical companies for general distribution on the power grid. The utility then provides a credit that cuts power bills, a major enticement to having home solar power systems. Profit-conscious utilities across the country, however, are concerned about the rates at which they are crediting customers for producing solar power.

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