Deep-pocketed power companies outspent the solar industry nearly $3 to $1 as part of an intensive lobbying effort during an S.C. legislative session that included efforts to curb rooftop solar’s expansion in the state.
Electric utilities spent nearly $523,000 from January through May to hire more than three dozen lobbyists to advocate for them at the State House as lawmakers decided what to do about solar incentives and a failed nuclear project.
Those utilities also poured more than $300,000 in contributions into state election campaigns through May of this year, largely to Republican incumbents, according to disclosure reports compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
The solar industry, which saw the nuclear fiasco as an opportunity to expand its footprint in the state, was outspent badly and lost. It spent more than $177,000 to hire 11 lobbyists during the 2018 legislative session.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
“Solar consumers are in a David versus Goliath battle with the big power monopolies,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition industry group.
But the traditional utilities and solar companies weren’t the only ones spending tens of thousands this year to try to influence legislators. The state’s electric cooperatives, trying to weigh in on the future of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, spent almost $239,000 on 25 lobbyists.
Selling a deal
Cayce-based SCANA and its would-be acquirer, Dominion Energy of Virginia, account for most of the lobbying done by utilities in the most recent legislative session, which ended last month.
The two utilities have been engaged in a marketing campaign trying to win support from the public and legislators for Dominion’s proposed $14.6 billion buyout of SCANA. SCANA, the parent company of SCE&G, has taken heat for abandoning construction on two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County in July 2017 that have cost SCE&G customers $2 billion in higher rates so far and could cost billions more.
SCANA, with customers in the Midlands and Lowcountry, spent $111,782 and hired eight registered lobbyists for the legislative session. Dominion doubled its S.C. lobbying staff to 10, spending $120,500 during just the first five months of 2018 compared to more than $51,000 for all of last year.
Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said the increased lobbying expense was needed to educate lawmakers about why the proposed Dominion-SCANA merger “is the best solution for customers, the state and South Carolina’s long-term energy needs.”
“It’s a long conversation on complicated topics that takes a lot of education, and we will keep pursuing that outreach,” Wade said.
SCANA and Dominion also unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers to keep them from cutting SCE&G’s electric rates. Dominion has said lawmakers, in passing that 15 percent rate cut last month, were gambling with ratepayers’ money.
An SCE&G spokesman did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
A new player
Charlotte-based Duke Energy, which has customers in the Upstate and Pee Dee, spent $136,176 on nine registered lobbyists during the 2018 session — the same number it has employed since January 2014.
Both Duke and SCANA long have been among the biggest lobbyists and contributors at the State House.
New to the mix this year was Florida-based NextEra Energy, which spent $59,500 to hire nine S.C. lobbyists, including former S.C. lawmakers Harry Cato and Tommy Moore.
NextEra’s first S.C. lobbyist registered with the state less than a month after news broke that the utility was interested in buying the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, SCANA’s junior partner in the failed nuclear project.
The Florida utility is also part of the Palmetto Energy Coalition. That group is pushing S.C. lawmakers to sell Santee Cooper and has criticized Dominion’s proposed buyout of SCANA.
According to its website, the group seeks “a long-term, economically viable solution to the future energy challenges faced by South Carolina residents and businesses as a result of the failure of the SCANA/Santee Cooper V.C. Summer nuclear energy project.”
A spokesman for NextEra did not respond to questions Tuesday.
Meanwhile, state-owned Santee Cooper — NextEra’s presumed acquisition target — hired two additional lobbyists this session, spending more than $85,000 for four lobbyists.
Solar expansion blocked
While the V.C. Summer debate — with its often unflattering portrayal of utilities — dominated the session, those utilities were successful in blocking a bill that would have raised the state’s cap on solar power to 4 percent from 2 percent, allowing more future customers to earn a credit for the excess power their rooftop solar panels produce.
After heavy lobbying by Duke and SCE&G, the Legislature refused to increase the cap on the number of people who can sell excess solar energy back to the utilities at favorable rates.
Solar-industry representatives and supporters argue the state’s growing solar industry would suffer if those rates are lowered, as fewer homeowners sign up for rooftop solar, costing installers and salespeople their jobs.
However, a Duke spokesman said the cap on solar power has worked, allowing solar power to take off in South Carolina.
“The incentives that were established (by lawmakers in 2014) were never meant to be permanent, but to jump-start a nascent solar industry,” said Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier. “The law clearly spelled out milestones ... that once reached would trigger a new conversation to establish a reasonable and fair solar policy that benefits everyone for many years to come.
“We are hopeful this current effort will lead to consensus, common-sense legislation that is fair and balances the interests of ... solar providers, energy companies and customers who use solar energy — and those who do not.”
The solar companies insist the electric utilities flexed their political muscles to ward off competition.
South Carolinians, who pay the country’s highest electrical bills, deserve a choice when it comes to where they get their power, said Tyson Grinstead, a local lobbyist for Sunrun, one of the nation’s biggest rooftop solar companies.
“And many are looking to solar as an available and preferable alternative to the traditional utility,” he said.
Despite the loss in this year’s legislative session, Grinstead said, “It’s only a matter of time before solar interests overcome the hurdles.”
‘Lobbying on steroids’
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said this year’s session amounted to “lobbying on steroids for the energy sector.”
He said lawmakers rely on lobbyists from both sides of issues to educate them on complicated topics such as energy policy, and keep them advised about challenges facing utilities.
“(Legislators) rely on the adversarial process to figure out what the best approach is, using lobbyists to educate them by listening to competing views,” Massey said.
While solar expansion lost traction — a victory for traditional power companies — lawmakers also passed a rate cut “in the face of opposition from the energy sector,” including SCANA, Massey noted.
State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, who sponsored raising the cap on solar power, said he’s “never seen a fight so out of balance than the one between the ratepayers — whether SCE&G customers or rooftop solar owners — “and utilities.”
Said Ballentine, “There’s a reason why these utilities are monopolies and why they want to stay monopolies.”