Politics & Government

Haley signs bill to ease restriction on solar energy

Standing under an array of solar panels outside a Columbia outfitters store Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley praised South Carolina's recent efforts to make power from the sun easier for businesses, utilities and homeowners to use.

Then, she signed a bill loosening restrictions on solar energy that for years have made South Carolina one of the least friendly states in the country for sun power.

"What we had were a lot of barriers -- barriers that stood in our way when it came to solar energy,'' Haley told more than 50 environmentalists, utility representatives and solar energy company executives.

But Haley said interest groups figured a way to work out their differences and make the bill possible. The bill passed the Legislature overwhelmingly last spring after a major compromise was brokered earlier in the year.

Before that, green groups and solar companies had been at odds with the state's power companies, which feared sun power could eventually draw profits away from them. She praised Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, for helping move the bill ahead.

Haley said expanding solar power in South Carolina will help diversify the mix of energy sources, while helping the Palmetto State catch up with North Carolina and Georgia in efforts to encourage sun-fired power.

"When you look at North Carolina and you look at Georgia, they've been doing pretty well when it comes to solar energy -- and they don't have any more sun than we do,'' the governor said during the event at Half Moon Outfitters, which installed a "solar tree" several years ago to help power the business.

Wednesday's signing was ceremonial only. She signed the bill earlier this summer. But Haley’s support for solar power is notable.

Only in the past two years, as The State newspaper and other news outlets began reporting on South Carolina's restrictive rules for alternative energy, have attitudes toward solar changed among policy makers in the Palmetto State.

Haley’s support for sun power also is significant because the governor has been criticized by conservation groups for failing to pay attention to environmental issues, and at times, blasting federal environmental regulations. Two months ago, Haley criticized federal carbon rules proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address climate change.

On Wednesday, some of the same environmentalists who support her opponent in the fall race for governor -- Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen -- were on hand to applaud Haley's stance on solar energy. Sheheen, a Camden lawyer, has been an outspoken proponent of alternate forms of energy. Solar power is viewed as a green alternative form of energy that does not create toxic waste like that produced by nuclear power plants or air pollution like that generated at coal plants.

Representatives of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the Sierra Club and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League joined representatives of Duke Energy, SCE&G and the state's electric cooperatives to show support for the Legislation.

The solar legislation Haley signed is complicated, imperfect and won't solve all of the state's solar energy challenges. But boosters say it sets in motion plans to expand solar dramatically in the state.

Among other things, the new law will allow solar leasing, a way of financing solar panels that could help people more affordably install sun systems on their rooftops. That historically has been an obstacle for homeowners. State laws have in the past discouraged solar companies that provide affordable roof top panels from coming to South Carolina.  Utilities in the past argued that such companies were, in effect, utilities and needed to go through the complicated process of becoming regulated by the S.C. Public Service Commission. One New England company that wanted to help churches, nonprofit groups and schools more easily afford solar panels left the state after SCE&G complained formally to the PSC.

The bill also is expected to encourage utilities to put more solar energy into their mix of resources to complement coal, nuclear and natural gas plants.

Before solar leasing can occur, however, the S.C. Public Service Commission must address how much power companies will credit homeowners and businesses for producing energy with sun panels. People who have installed solar panels sometimes make so much energy, they sell it back to utilities. The PSC's decisions in the next year could lower or raise current prices due homeowners. This issue is a key reason that utilities agreed to the solar bill.

Haley noted that the collaboration on the bill should extend to other issues that various interest groups disagree on. She specifically praised the Coastal Conservation League, a sometimes critic of Haley policies, for its work on the legislation.

“This is a group that continues to impress me because they never just say no, they push hard to figure out how,'' she said. "We want to work with you more, so let us know how to do that.''