Forecast looks sunny for SC solar power bill

03/27/2014 9:55 PM

03/27/2014 9:56 PM

A solar energy bill that boosters say will expand South Carolina’s use of sun power breezed through a Senate subcommittee Thursday, putting the legislation on a faster pace for approval.

After years of disputes, solar backers and major power companies have tentatively agreed to support the compromise plan.

The full Senate judiciary committee could vote on the bill in the next two weeks — and lawmakers said they believe the compromise gives the legislation a chance of becoming law this year, even as the legislative session winds down in the next two months.

“It has a real good chance of passing the Senate,” subcommittee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, said after the three-member panel voted unanimously to approve the bill.

Rankin and Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, said they both like the use of solar power as a way to diversify the state’s energy base. South Carolina has traditionally drawn much of its energy from coal and nuclear plants. Expanding solar power also could help the economy, Turner said.

“It is going to be a viable business for the state,” Turner said, noting that cost effective renewable energy sources could “take some of the pressure off the power grid as we grow.”

The bill still would need House approval and some interest groups need to scrutinize it. But Turner said the support of major utilities helps its chances. Utilities had been hesitant to support solar in the past because of concern it could hurt revenues and be difficult to integrate into their power grid. Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said his company backs the bill.

The complicated, 17-page bill is intended to make the use of solar power more accessible for homeowners, businesses and schools. It allows utilities to recover some of their costs in exchange for liberalizing solar laws. While allowing for expansion of solar, it places limits on how large that expansion can be without further legislative review.

A key part of the legislation will make it easier for solar companies to lease sun panels to people at what solar backers say will be more affordable prices. That would allow them to rely less on traditional power company-generated electricity, which could reduce their bills.

Changing the law could save people money on power bills, particularly over time, by locking in the amount they would pay per month for electricity, said Grant Reeves, who heads the S.C. Solar Business Alliance. Reeves said the bill also could help large-scale projects, which could provide more jobs to the developing S.C. solar industry.

One of the biggest drawbacks to rooftop solar in South Carolina has been the high up-front cost of putting solar on a person’s home, an expense that can easily top $20,000. Many states allow some form of solar leasing, but until recently, South Carolina has been reluctant to adopt the system.

The bill also will make it easier for commercial businesses and some schools to use solar power by raising a cap that limits the use of sun panels that are hooked to a utility’s power grid. The cap will rise from 100 kilowatts to 1 megawatt, a measure that would allow those currently at the cap — such as Furman University — to use more solar. Additionally, the bill has protections for customers who don’t use solar power. The S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff, which looks at consumer issues, supports the legislation.

South Carolina historically has been one of the nation’s least friendly states toward solar power. Solar is touted as a way to save money and protect the environment because it is considered non-polluting.

Thursday’s vote followed presentations by the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, as well as letters of support from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

Florida Democratic state Rep. Joe Gibbons, who represented the black lawmakers group, flew to Columbia from Tallahassee to speak at Thursday’s meeting in favor of the bill. He said it was progressive and stronger than some Florida solar laws.

“We are the Sunshine State, and for you to get ahead of us is a major deal,” Gibbons said. “It really puts South Carolina on the map.”

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