Politics & Government

Nuclear debacle energizes push for solar power expansion

Solar panels like these are touted as a way to provide lower cost energy for homeowners
Solar panels like these are touted as a way to provide lower cost energy for homeowners

As the fight continues over whether South Carolinians should get their money back for a failed nuclear project, another battle is developing that could affect monthly electricity bills.

South Carolina is nearing a state-set limit on solar energy that would curtail the expansion of rooftop solar systems for homeowners, industry officials say.

In the next two years, SCE&G and Duke Energy are expected to reach the state-mandated limit, making it harder for people to add solar panels to their roofs, say government regulators, solar energy advocates and conservationists.

The state limit is an issue lawmakers are expected to look at while energy issues are on the public’s mind.

The Legislature already is dealing with the fallout from SCE&G’s failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project, which cost the utility’s electricity customers almost $2 billion. Legislators also are wrestling with whether to oppose or endorse offshore oil drilling.

“We can’t allow this (opportunity) to pass without advancing lower cost energy options for citizens, whether its through solar’’ or other means, said state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, a Democratic candidate for governor. “It would be a terrible mistake not to make progress here.”

A 6.8 megawatt solar facility with 31,000 solar panels is producing electricity in Saluda. The Solar power industry is lobbying the South Carolina legislature to order state counties to give it tax breaks. The tax breaks, the industry says, are ne

2014 law includes cap on solar power

Since the Legislature voted in 2014 to ease some restrictions on solar power, the industry has added about 2,000 new jobs in the Palmetto State, dramatically increasing the number of home solar systems that South Carolinians use to save money, energy statistics show.

But the 2014 law came with limits.

State utilities, fearful a wholesale move to solar power could cut into their profits, negotiated a limit on the expansion of solar energy. That included a 2 percent cap on a power company’s peak average demand for energy over five years.

“Each utility is closing in on that limit,’’ said Dawn Hipp, an official with the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff.

Unless the cap is increased or eliminated — as Rep. Smith proposes in a bill — solar advocates say it will cost the state jobs and prevent some homeowners from installing panels through solar leases.

“If we hit the cap, it could be devastating — and we are not just crying wolf,’’ said Eddy Moore, energy issues director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

Solar is a clean, less polluting way to provide electricity and save consumers’ money, while also reducing demand on the state’s traditional power sources, conservationists, industry officials and some state lawmakers say. Many homeowners who have leased solar panels for their rooftops have enjoyed lower monthly power bills, industry officials contend.

‘Next year is too late’

Solar power in South Carolina is threatened by its own success, in part, industry backers say.

As of 2016, workers had installed more than 4,000 rooftop solar systems for lease to S.C. homeowners, according to the Office of Regulatory Staff. In 2014, workers had installed fewer than 300 systems, according to Sunrun, a national solar company that leases panels to homeowners.

That rapid increase has caused South Carolina’s solar expansion to approach the state-set cap on it sooner than expected, officials say.

Sunrun officials, who are to address a legislative committee Wednesday, are making an all-out effort to eliminate the solar cap before Duke or SCE&G reach the limit.

“Next year is too late’’ to take action, said Tyson Grinstead, a Sunrun official in South Carolina.

Not everyone agrees that getting rid of the cap is a pressing matter. Some lawmakers have said they did plenty to aid the solar industry in 2014.

In addition to easing some restrictions that allowed rooftop solar arrays to become established in South Carolina, once one of the least solar friendly states in the country, the 2014 law has led to an expansion of industrial-scale solar farms across the state.

Ginny Jones, an SCE&G spokeswoman, said that utility has concerns about Rep. Smith’s bill to allow more residential-produced solar power. A key question is whether SCE&G customers not producing solar power will have to subsidize customers who get part of their energy from the sun. SCE&G customers with solar panels often pay less than those without panels.

“We have concerns about potentially undermining the ability of all interested parties to collaborate,’’ Jones said in an email. “We would point to the state energy plan and the landmark Act 236 of 2014 as recent successful examples of collaboratively developed energy policies in South Carolina. We don’t believe that shifting the costs of private solar power generators onto all 717,000 of our electric customers will promote sustainable, long-term solar growth in South Carolina.’’

Duke Energy officials had no immediate comment Tuesday.

The solar cap does not affect the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, South Carolina’s other major power company, because it is not regulated by the S.C. Public Service Commission.