Santee Cooper approves controversial charges on solar power

Rooftop solar array at Furman University
Rooftop solar array at Furman University

State-owned Santee Cooper approved a package of solar energy charges Monday that the company says will help it recover lost revenue but that critics contend will chill interest in sun power across eastern South Carolina.

The Santee Cooper board, which has been discussing the plan for months, approved charging customers who install solar panels to heat and light their homes.

At the meeting, the board also approved Santee Cooper’s $2.7 billion budget for 2016 and agreed to increase electricity rates for customers over the next two years. The average customer would pay about 3.7 percent more annually.

Santee Cooper’s solar levies, criticized in a series of emails and letters by conservation groups, are being assessed in part to offset what officials say is the cost of providing utility lines and other equipment to solar customers, as well as to pay off debt.

One charge, called a “standby fee,’’ would cost residential customers $4.40 per month per kilowatt of installed solar capacity, according to Santee Cooper. That works out to about $17 per month for the average residential solar customer.

In addition to the extra charges, the board set the rate at which Santee Cooper will buy back solar from customers who produce more than they use. The company charges about 11 cents per kilowatt hour for people to buy its power, but will pay back residential customers about 7 cents per kilowatt hour for any excess solar energy they produce, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.

Gore said the package is part of Santee Cooper’s larger strategy to help promote solar in the company’s territory. The company also has a package of incentives, as well as rebates for people who invest in rooftop solar, she said. “We’ve demonstrated our commitment to solar from the beginning,’’ Gore said, noting that the company established the state’s first large-scale solar farm.

But environmentalists said the Santee Cooper decision was disappointing. Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, called the extra charges “punitive.’’

Hamilton Davis, energy director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said adding extra charges offsets the savings people could see on their power bills by going to solar. “We think they continue to head in the wrong direction on solar,’’Davis said of Santee Cooper, noting that the league will examine whether the charges are legal.

The league says the state-owned utility’s plan is less customer friendly than those of SCE&G and Duke Energy.

Santee Cooper provides power to much of eastern South Carolina, including Myrtle Beach, Florence, Georgetown and Myrtle Beach. Duke serves Upstate South Carolina, while SCE&G serves the Columbia and Charleston areas.

Solar energy, which does not produce any air pollution or waste, is a growing form of power in the country and in South Carolina. Customers in South Carolina generally use a mix of solar power and traditional electricity to heat and light their homes. Power company energy is used at night and during rainy periods, while rooftop solar power is used on sunny days.