With West Coast critics mollified, a proposal to expand solar energy in South Carolina sailed through the state Senate Wednesday after months of negotiations between sun power backers and utilities concerned about profits.
The vote is considered a significant step to loosen rules that have made South Carolina one of the least friendly states toward solar power, an increasingly popular energy source that can save homeowners money, limit pollution and diversify the types of energy utilities rely on.
“It’s been touch and go for the last few months,” said environmentalist Hamilton Davis, one of the main negotiators in brokering a compromise sun power bill. “I was hopeful and cautiously optimistic we would get this through. It feels good to have it done.”
The bill moves to the House with a month left in the Legislative session. Supporters say that is enough time to get the measure approved since influential utilities now back the bill.
Utilities that were cool initially to the proposal for fear of losing customers now support the measure because it allows them to recover some costs. It also allows a state commission to review the rates at which utilities reimburse homeowners for producing sun power for the electrical grid.
The compromise between South Carolina sun power boosters and utilities was heavily criticized at one point by the Alliance for Solar Choice, a California-headquartered group composed of major rooftop solar companies.
Alliance officials said the compromise bill could have created an unfair advantage for utilities against private companies that offer low-cost solar deals to homeowners. That could have allowed utilities to subsidize rooftop solar programs through rate increases, an advantage private solar companies don’t have, they said.
But refinements to the proposed law have calmed concerns by the Alliance for Solar Choice, spokeswoman Susan Glick said.
“We do not oppose it in its current form,” Glick said in an email Wednesday.
Supporters of the law, while acknowledging imperfections, say the long-term gains for South Carolina make passing the bill worthwhile. It could increase the amount of installed solar to 300 megawatts in a state that now has only about 7 megawatts of solar, boosters say. The bill would:
• Require private utilities, such as SCE&G and Duke Energy, to acquire a moderate percentage of solar power by 2021. That is expected to mean more solar farms and sun power systems on commercial buildings, which would increase jobs.
• Loosen a restrictive statewide cap that prevents big box retail stores, universities and others from adding more solar.
• Allow solar companies to lease sun panels to homeowners and businesses now discouraged by high upfront purchase prices.
If the bill passes, however, it will not provide immediate help to homeowners who want to install solar energy systems but who can’t afford to spend $15,000 to $20,000 in upfront costs. It could be a year or more before programs could be established to make solar panels affordable, as they are in other states with less restrictions on the sun industry.
That’s because the bill allows the state Public Service Commission to consider lowering the amount utilities must credit homeowners who produce solar power on their roofs. Challenges also remain in how to provide affordable rooftop solar systems for nonprofits, churches and schools.