The state’s electric cooperatives and Duke Energy took issue Wednesday with a solar energy bill that is being touted as a way for South Carolinians to save money on their electric bills.
State Rep. James Smith of Columbia, a Democratic candidate for governor, has proposed lifting a cap on the amount of solar energy that S.C. homeowners can generate and further liberalizing state law to help the sun-power industry grow.
Growth in solar use has pushed the state near the limit on solar power. If that cap is not raised, it could stop residents from continuing to lease solar panels that, industry supporters say, are a way to cut power bills.
The state’s electric cooperatives, which serve 1.3 million residents, oppose the bill. They now are not covered by a 2014 state law that allowed for a limited expansion of solar power. Smith’s bill would include them.
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John Frick, a representative of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said the cooperatives are concerned customers without solar will have to pay higher bills to make up for the lost revenues from those using solar power.
“If you see solar companies and utilities at odds with each other, it’s over this,” Frick said.
Chuck Claunch, a lobbyist for Duke Energy, echoed those concerns. The utility supports solar power but now is subsidizing customers who use it, he said, adding that subsidy needs to end.
Smith’s bill was the focus of a legislative committee meeting Wednesday to discuss the cap.
James Koehler, a vice president with the Palmetto Solar company, said electric utilities are resisting changes in the law in an effort to protect their profits. “They are protecting their shareholders. They are not looking out for ratepayers.”
The solar debate has taken on new meaning this year as S.C. residents smart from a nuclear construction debacle that has cost them more than $2 billion thus far. SCE&G customers are paying about $27-a-month for two nuclear reactors that won’t be finished.
Since the Legislature voted in 2014 to ease restrictions, the solar industry has grown substantially in South Carolina. The state has added 2,000 to 3,000 solar energy jobs and sharply increased the number of homes with solar systems, statistics show.
The 2014 law, however, came with limits.
State utilities were fearful that a large move to solar power could cut into their profits and raise power bills for consumers not using solar. So they negotiated a limit on the expansion of solar energy. That included a 2 percent cap on a power company’s peak average demand for energy over five years.
Unless the cap is increased or eliminated, sun-power advocates say it will cost the state jobs and prevent some homeowners from leasing solar panels. Environmental groups and sun-power associations are pushing to eliminate the cap.
Smith said South Carolina needs to catch up with other states that are outpacing it in solar expansion.
“If other states can do it, we can sure as heck do it in South Carolina,” Smith said, adding he is tired of “those who want to defend the status quo” to hold back solar power.
Solar is a clean, less polluting way to provide electricity, while also reducing demand on the state’s traditional power sources, conservationists, industry officials and some lawmakers say. Many homeowners who have leased solar panels for their rooftops have lower monthly power bills, industry officials contend.
▪ Want to know more? The growth of solar is a relatively new trend in South Carolina. Until a 2014 law passed, the state’s restrictive laws and opposition from power companies made it one of the least friendly places in the country for solar energy. The State revealed many of these problems in a series of stories in 2012.