National solar companies skeptical of SC

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 29, 2014 

— West Coast solar energy companies remain critical about a plan that is projected to expand sun power in South Carolina after years of reticence from utilities toward renewable energy in the Palmetto State.

While no longer opposing the solar bill as they had earlier this spring, The Alliance for Solar Choice and TUSK organizations said Thursday the legislation still favors utilities over private sun energy companies.

The alliance said the bill, which awaits only Gov. Nikki Haley’s approval, isn’t strong enough to bring national solar companies into South Carolina to help people install more affordable sun energy systems. Both groups represent some of the nation’s most prominent solar companies, which provide lower-cost solar energy systems to individual homeowners and businesses.

“It doesn’t necessarily increase choice and competition for the average Joe,” said Bryan Miller, who heads the California-headquartered alliance.

TUSK, short for Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, said the bill is not model legislation for other states looking to increase more rooftop solar. TUSK is from Arizona.

“The final legislation is far from where it should be to truly grow the market in South Carolina,” TUSK said in a news release Thursday.

The alliance and TUSK opposed the first legislative compromise on the bill, saying it gave utilities an unfair advantage. The organizations later backed off after the legislation was amended to address some concerns about competition.

Most who negotiated the compromise for the sun power bill consider it a landmark measure for solar shy South Carolina, one of the nation’s least friendly states toward renewable power. They say it’s a good start toward expanding the industry.

“I agree this bill is not ideal, but that is what you get out of political negotiations,” said Hamilton Davis, energy director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “But it’s still a substantial improvement over where we were last year.”

S.C. Electric & Gas offered similar comments.

“We’re proud to have been part of the collaborative process to develop this important legislation as it provides a strong foundation for integrating more renewable energy in South Carolina that will benefit us all,” SCE&G spokeswoman Emily Brady said.

One of the biggest features of the complex bill is a requirement that investor owned utilities increase the use of solar power by 2021. That’s forecast to increase the number of solar farms and, by some estimates, could result in some 300 megawatts of additional sun power added in South Carolina. The state now has about 7 megawatts of installed solar, among the least amounts in the country.

In some states, people have cut power bills by leasing rooftop solar panels from private companies or buying sun-generated electricity directly from those companies. Lower overall energy bills result because a homeowner is generating his or her own electricity when the sun shines. The homeowner relies on power company electricity at night or during rainy periods.

In South Carolina, the legislation allows solar leasing by private companies for the first time, but delays that until the state Public Service Commission examines an issue that could lower costs for power companies. The so-called “net metering” issue would look at how much power companies reimburse those with rooftop solar panels for producing energy. The process is expected to take a year or more to resolve.

The solar power debate has been lengthy and at times testy during the past year, with power companies concerned that expanding solar could cost them money. But this past winter, utilities and South Carolina solar boosters finally agreed on a compromise that helped propel the legislation through both the House and Senate.

Bruce Wood, a solar businessman since the 1970s, said he’s encouraged by the bill but notes that a companion solar tax credit bill is still languishing in the Legislature as the session draws to a close next week. Better tax credits are needed to help encourage the expansion of solar, which could create jobs, he said.

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