Sheheen criticizes ‘vacuum of leadership’

Criticizing what he said is a lack of leadership on state energy policy, Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Thursday he favors cutting taxes for renewable power projects, putting solar panels on state office buildings and providing more money to make houses energy efficient.

Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who plans to run for governor next year, said South Carolina could produce thousands of jobs by embracing new forms of energy and allowing the alternative power industry to expand.

But South Carolina has no comprehensive plan for energy conservation and efficiency, nor is it doing enough to encourage clean energy expansion, Sheheen told several hundred people at a conference in Columbia.

“Right now, there is a vacuum of leadership in those areas,” Sheheen said. He did not mention Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in his speech, but said later that leadership on energy policy starts in the governor’s office.

“We certainly haven’t seen any big ideas on clean energy and how to keep our dollars and our jobs in South Carolina,” he told reporters.

Sheheen’s remarks drew a sharp reaction from Haley’s office, which crystallized the differences between the two contenders in the governor’s race. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey blasted Sheheen for opposing offshore energy exploration and supporting President Obama.

“The energy ‘leadership’ Vince Sheheen supports is President Obama’s, the same ‘leadership’ that has stopped South Carolina from safely exploring for American clean energy resources off our coast,” Godfrey said in an email. “Sheheen shares the president’s position that we shouldn’t explore offshore for oil and natural gas, meaning he’s against thousands of jobs, millions of new state dollars that could go to education or (to) lower our taxes, and South Carolina doing our part in making America energy independent. (It) strikes me as the very opposite of leadership.”

Sheheen, an opponent of drilling for oil off South Carolina beaches, made his remarks as interest in renewable power grows in a state that historically has shunned sun, wind and biomass in favor of coal and nuclear.

South Carolina is among the least friendly states in the country for solar power, even though it has plenty of sunshine, according to national renewable energy scorecards. That has kept homeowners from being able to afford the high upfront prices of sun panels that otherwise could cut their power bills.

Renewable power takes less of a toll on the environment because certain forms, such as solar and wind, do not release toxic pollutants, greenhouse gases or create nuclear waste. But renewable energy’s biggest appeal, say its advocates, is lower monthly power bills for the average customer – particularly since South Carolina is a poor state with some of the highest average electricity rates in the South.

The state also has “one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in America,” Sheheen said, noting that many low-income residents can’t afford to pay for energy efficiency improvements on their homes.

He recounted the story of a man in rural South Carolina who he learned is paying more than $400 per month for electricity, even though the man lives in a small trailer. That’s about the amount Sheheen, a lawyer, said he pays monthly to heat and light his 3,000-square-foot house in Kershaw County.

If the mobile home could be made more energy efficient, those power bills might go down, Sheheen said at the S.C. Clean Energy Summit, which attracted several hundred renewable energy entrepreneurs, utility executives and others.

One way to attack the problem is by having the state back bonds for utility companies to comprehensively provide funds so people can afford to make homes energy efficient, he said. Utilities have programs now, but the effort is not broad enough, Sheheen said.

He did not mention nuclear power, a force in South Carolina that some say has discouraged renewable energy. SCE&G is building two new atomic energy plants in Fairfield County, one of only two places in the country where that is occurring.

Still, the state needs to do better, Sheheen said. He said the state will spend generously to lure industries that provide several thousand jobs, so it surely could do more to help renewable energy projects that want to come to the state and create jobs.

The Legislature should make it easier for counties to cut taxes now assessed on solar energy equipment, such as panels at solar farms, he said.

He also said state government should lead by example, making its buildings more efficient and installing solar panels on rooftops to help cut power bills. Additionally, Sheheen said the state should do more to encourage wind farms off the coast.

Reaction to Sheheen’s remarks drew positive feedback at a later session about how to expand solar energy in South Carolina. Solar boosters said the state needs to work harder to change restrictive policies, much the way Georgia has in recent years. That state – where the country’s other new nuclear power plants are being built -- has had a change of heart on solar and today has about 22 megawatts of installed solar power, compared to less than a half a megawatt five years ago, said Peter Marte, chief executive at Hannah Solar of Atlanta. South Carolina has less than five megawatts of solar capacity.

South Carolina’s policies are so restrictive that it’s hard for military bases to add solar power here, even though bases in other states are moving forward, said Charleston businessman Dave McNeil, a former military base commander who now works in the solar industry. A key concern is a South Carolina policy that discourages solar companies from coming to the state and offering low-cost sun panels, he said.

The military wants 25 percent of the energy at its bases to be from renewable sources by 2025, he said. That not only cuts power bills, but McNeil said it would provide the bases sources of energy if traditional sources go down – which he said is a national security issue. Not having solar on South Carolina bases could one day cost the state when future base closures are considered, he said, noting that national leaders may look to keep the most diversified bases.

“We’re putting our military bases at risk” of closure, McNeil said.