Under pressure from the state's major utilities, the S.C. House killed a solar bill Tuesday that was intended to protect thousands of jobs and save customers money on their monthly power bills.
The bill's defeat, a stunning reversal from a House vote last week, brought withering criticism from many lawmakers, who said the House caved in to opposition by Duke Energy and SCE&G, derailing the legislation. Utilities have expressed concern about how competition from solar could affect them.
State Rep. James Smith, the bill's chief sponsor, also blamed Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. Smith, a Democratic candidate for governor and potential opponent to McMaster in November's general election, said the Republican urged some lawmakers not to vote for the bill — a point McMaster's office hotly disputed.
"He called House Republican leadership and raked them over the coals,'' Smith said he was told by fellow legislators. "It was giving me a victory. But it ain't about me. It ain't about Henry.''
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Smith said several Republican representatives told him McMaster got involved in the debate because the House was not considering a bill he favored on sanctuary cities.
Spokesman Brian Symmes challenged Smith to produce evidence proving that.
"Rep. Smith is going to be hard-pressed to prove that,'' Symmes said. "There is absolutely no truth to it whatsoever.''
Symmes said the governor's office did talk with lawmakers about the sanctuary cities bill, but did not call on lawmakers to vote against the solar bill.
The solar bill, the result of months of study, would have removed a cap that limits the expansion of solar power in South Carolina.
The state is nearing a 2-percent limit set on solar power in the state. Unless that cap is removed, solar proponents say the emerging rooftop solar industry will dry up and as many as 3,000 jobs will be lost. Failing to remove the cap also will make it more expensive for residents to afford solar panels, sun-power supporters say. Since the state passed a 2014 solar bill designed to jump-start the industry, solar growth has been steady, boosters say.
Power companies spoke against the bill earlier this year, arguing it was hurting them and customers who don't use solar power. Utilities are expected to lose more than $1 million a year in coming years to the growing rooftop solar market in South Carolina, Smith of Columbia said last week.
The solar bill died Tuesday in the House after utility boosters raised a technical point, saying passing the bill would require a two-thirds majority vote. The House voted for the legislation, 61-44, but that was short of the two-thirds required for approval.
State Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, said the House made the right decision in killing the legislation. Sandifer long has been allied with utilities and was among those leading the efforts against Smith's solar bill. Sandifer has received $69,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities and their employees since 2005, The State reported last year.
"It was a good vote,'' Sandifer said as he left the House chamber. "It is better for the state.''
State Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said South Carolina’s power companies flexed their muscle over the weekend and came up with a technicality to doom the legislation. Both Smith and McCoy supported the solar legislation.
“They are showing the people of South Carolina they run this state,” McCoy said of the utilities.
McCoy and others said the utilities can't be trusted in light of the recent nuclear construction debacle in Fairfield County. SCE&G's failed twin-reactor project is costing taxpayers $27 a month in a state with the nation's highest electricity bills.
State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester, said the House was making a mistake by voting down the solar bill.
“I’m embarrassed,'' Arrington said. "This is not what we are supposed to be.''
Solar backers say using the sun to make energy helps people save money on electricity costs, while providing a cleaner, less-polluting form of energy than power from nuclear, coal or natural gas plants. The issue boils down to how much freedom people would have to pick their own energy sources, instead of relying solely on power companies, proponents of the bill said.
After the vote, a Duke Energy spokesman said that utility favors "common-sense legislation that is fair (and) balances the interests of all who call South Carolina home," urging more discussion of the issue. "What we’ve proposed all along is a reasonable path forward to continue to grow solar energy in South Carolina. Our customers have always had the right to go solar if they choose, and that will continue.
SCE&G had no immediate comment.
The utilities have complained that nonsolar customers are subsidizing solar customers, who cut their power bills. Rooftop solar systems lower homeowners' power bills because they produce power during the daytime when the sun is shining.
With the bill dead in the House, chances of similar legislation passing this year are unlikely.
But state Sens. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, and Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said they might try to revive the House plan by amending the state budget that takes effect July 1.
The Senate is working on its version of the budget this week.
"Now is a great time to do it,'' Jackson said. "We'll see if we can't get moving on that right now.''
Tuesday's vote threw cold water on a major win for solar backers last week. In a showdown Thursday between the solar industry and the state’s heavily criticized utilities, legislators sided with sun-power advocates by agreeing to eliminate the cap on the industry’s growth in South Carolina. Utilities rarely lose battles in the Legislature, lawmakers said.
The legislation had been expected to gain a routine final approval Tuesday, but questions surfaced about whether last week’s vote was proper. Solar bill opponents argued the bill needed a two-thirds vote from the House, instead of a simple majority, because it contained a provision that exempted rooftop solar arrays from taxes.