A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, environmentalists and solar-energy advocates is renewing its push to ease South Carolina’s restrictions on rooftop solar customers.
Lawmakers gathered at the State House on Thursday to announce details on solar bills filed in the state Senate and S.C. House to allow suppliers to provide alternative energy options.
“The days of utilities deciding our energy policy are over,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, co-chair of the S.C. Energy Caucus.
Sponsored by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and S.C. House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, the bills include measures that would increase transparency, modify net-metering policies, allow solar energy to compete on the open energy market, and provide a way for lower-income residents to take advantage of low-cost solar energy.
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The legislation would remove a limit on a program that allows customers to earn a credit for the excess power that their rooftop solar panels produce. Duke Energy’s customers are expected to hit that cap in March, and customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas soon could follow.
After reaching the cap, utilities no longer have to offer net-metering, which provides favorable rates, to new residential solar customers.
Solar companies say that could lead to thousands of lost solar jobs, as fewer homeowners sign up for rooftop solar and solar companies move to states with more favorable regulations.
“We’re facing a dilemma as to whether the state is going to be open for business for us,” said Tyson Grinstead with Sunrun, one of the country’s largest solar companies. “We’ve seen a lot of SCE&G and Duke Energy customers across the state choose solar as a means of really grasping control of their power bills and doing something proactively of their own accord to bring their bills down, and also to produce clean energy. We want to make sure that customers have choice.”
A spokesman for Duke Energy, one of the state’s largest companies, said that utility still is reviewing the bills. But, he added, the utility supports “letting customers use all the solar they produce for their own consumption.”
However, the utility opposes continuing the net-metering rate, arguing the favorable rates paid solar customers are subsidized by non-solar customers, a claim that solar advocates dispute.
Utilities want to pay customers, whose rooftop solar panels produce power, less for solar than they are paid for producing power.
A spokeswoman for SCE&G said it, too, is still reviewing the bills. But, she added, utility officials meet frequently with S.C. solar installers, developers, nonprofits, utilities and cooperatives to discuss expanding solar energy’s use and generation.
“One of our goals during this process is to continue to create energy options that are best for all of our customers,” spokeswoman Aimée Murray said. “Collaboration related to the net-metering policy will be an important policy undertaking in order to properly reflect grid costs and eliminate the subsidization that exists today.”
Power utilities outspent the solar industry nearly $3 to $1 last year during the Legislature’s session as part of an intensive lobbying effort that included efforts to curb rooftop solar’s expansion in the state.
The proposed legislation also seeks to promote alternative energy sources and energy efficiency, and to diversify South Carolina’s electric power industry by creating a market for power from non-utility power producers.
The bills mirror federal law that requires utilities to buy power from independent companies that can produce power for less than it would cost for the utility to generate the power.
The aim is to break up a monopoly system that inhibits innovation and, in South Carolina, produces some of the highest power bills in the country, Sen. Davis said.
“If an independent power producer can come in and demonstrate they can generate power more cheaply, they ought to be able to sell that power to the grid and have those savings passed on to the ratepayers,” he said.
Supporter Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, said the proposals would benefit low- and moderate-income communities by giving them access to cheaper solar energy, and also cut manufacturing costs, creating more jobs.
A coalition of solar industry and conservation groups have launched a 100-day “clean energy agenda” campaign to urge legislators to swiftly address the issue.
Free-market competition will lower power bills, create jobs and increase energy independence, said Conservation Voters of South Carolina executive director John Tynan.
Recent statewide polling — commissioned by Vote Solar, a national solar-energy nonprofit — suggests a large majority of S.C. voters would support a new law that gives consumers more choices in where they buy power.
Of the 400 S.C. voters surveyed Dec. 8-11, 69 percent said utilities should be required to buy power from a private power producer if that company can produce power more cheaply than the utility. And 87 percent said consumers should have the right to buy power directly from the private producer if it can produce power more cheaply.
“Last year, solar came so close,” McCoy said. “The votes were there. We had the effort. We had the energy, and we had the people on board for alternative energy solutions. ... It’s time to finish the drill.”