Editorial: SC Legislature shouldn’t discourage solar

12/24/2013 12:00 AM

12/23/2013 5:50 PM

THE DECISION by electricity giant SCE&G to build five solar energy facilities should put to rest the notion that solar is a boondoggle, embraced only by politicians seeking to curry favor from leftist Cassandras.

Utilities are among the most powerful lobbying groups in our state, and our state is among the most politically conservative in the nation — in both the good and the bad ways. So you can be sure that a S.C. utility company would not make such an investment for purely political purposes.

Although it not a huge investment, it will increase SCE&G’s capacity by more than 1,200-fold, and coming on the heels of the decision by Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives to build their own solar farm, it makes a powerful statement about what our utilities consider sound business investments.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between a utility investing in solar energy and our state making it feasible for individuals, charities and businesses to invest in solar energy. The biggest difference is a law that the state’s electric utilities say requires companies that lease solar panels to homeowners and churches and businesses to be regulated the same way as a utility that operates a nuclear reactor or converts coal or natural gas into electricity. This third-party leasing arrangement makes the expensive solar panels available to more customers and has greatly increased the use of rooftop solar in much of the country. Our law has helped South Carolina achieve some of the lowest solar-energy rates in the nation.

There are legitimate questions as to how to price solar power that consumers generate and want to sell back to utilities, including how to make sure that customers who don’t generate solar energy don’t end up subsidizing those who do. There are legitimate questions as to how to make sure home-grown solar energy can be uploaded safely and without disruption to the grid.

But there is no legitimate question whose answer could conceivably be “someone who leases solar panels to people in return for their savings on their utility bills is a utility company and must be regulated as such.” They might well be lenders, and they probably should be regulated like other lenders. But they aren’t utilities.

That ought to be obvious to anyone, but efforts to clarify this point haven’t even gotten a serious hearing in the Legislature, due to heavy opposition from electric utilities.

We understand why the electric utilities like the status quo; they are, after all, in business to make money, and anything that reduces their customer base, even by a minuscule amount, endangers their ability to do that; we can’t understand why our legislators would feel that way.

This isn’t a question of whether the Legislature should subsidize solar energy. It’s a question of whether our state should continue to throw up intellectually insulting roadblocks to solar. The right answer to that question is painfully obvious to anyone who isn’t bought and paid for by the utilities.

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