Politics & Government

Poor people might subsidize the middle class under new solar legislation, critics say

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Ocean Springs resident Matt Campbell explains how a bi-directional meter measures electricity flow in two directions. Campbell and his wife, Lea, are able to sell the excess energy that their solar panels produce to their utility company.
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Ocean Springs resident Matt Campbell explains how a bi-directional meter measures electricity flow in two directions. Campbell and his wife, Lea, are able to sell the excess energy that their solar panels produce to their utility company.

South Carolina’s fight over the solar industry’s expansion appeared to be nearing a resolution — until questions surfaced Wednesday about the impact a compromise would have on poor South Carolinians and a wealthy power utility.

A House subcommittee of the Labor Commerce and Industry Committee approved a compromise solar energy bill Wednesday that supporters say will ensure sun power remains an affordable way to lower homeowners’ power bills.

But the panel also heard concerns about the compromise from AARP South Carolina, the Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Duke Energy.

AARP’s John Ruoff said the bill has no provisions to protect the poor from having to subsidize solar power in South Carolina. Ruoff said his group was not included in negotiations that led to the compromise among solar industry officials, environmentalists and utilities.

That compromise could hurt the poorest South Carolinians, Ruoff said. They don’t participate in solar programs and could be charged more by utilities seeking to make up revenue lost to competing solar companies, Ruoff said.

“We do not oppose expansion of solar power in South Carolina but believe there should be common-sense protections for low-income customers,’’ Ruoff said in testimony to the House panel. “We are especially concerned that low-income customers, largely unable to access solar ... not be supporting access to solar for those who are financially better off”

Meanwhile, Duke Energy officials offered a last-minute amendment to ensure the utility would not have to offer deals longer than 10 years to some industrial-scale solar companies that want to sell power to it.

Solar developers said Duke’s proposed change is a major shift in a compromise that has taken months to devise.

Solar development companies say Duke has not negotiated enough fair deals with them. They are seeking higher payments and longer term agreements from Duke through the solar bill.

“These are billions of dollars in investments that are hung up,’’ said Hamilton Davis, a solar development company representative.

At issue is how to craft a law that allows solar power to expand in South Carolina.

The industrial-scale and rooftop-solar industries have grown in South Carolina since a 2014 law eased many of the restrictions that had made the Palmetto State one of the least friendly places for solar power in the country.

Since the 2014 law passed, about 3,000 solar jobs have been added in South Carolina and about 4,000 homeowners have installed rooftop solar panels. However, the 2014 law includes a 2 percent cap on solar expansion.

That cap was reached last year in northwestern South Carolina and soon will be reached in the Columbia, Charleston and Florence areas. Reaching the cap already has cost some solar jobs, solar advocates say.

The compromise before the Legislature would keep the rooftop solar business going for two years while the state Public Service Commission studies how to regulate the industry. Then, in 2021, the PSC would establish rules for solar, including how much homeowners would be paid by utilities for the power that they provide to the electrical grid from their rooftop solar panels.

Tyson Grinstead, a representative of the Sunrun rooftop solar company, said his industry faces a “crisis’’ if legislation isn’t passed to ease the 2 percent cap.

“We believe that the (bill), while not perfect in our view, does one thing: And that is keep those 3,000 jobs in South Carolina and allow our industry to continue moving forward,’’ he said.

State Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, said he expects the compromise bill to pass the full Labor Commerce and Industry committee Thursday and be sent to the House. He called the compromise a good one.

“There has been a tremendous amount of give and take of all the stakeholders, on both sides,’’ said Sandifer, the committee’s chairman. “Everybody got something and nobody got everything. That is compromise, the pure definition.’’

Solar energy is an emerging form of power that relies on panels to absorb the sun’s rays. Producing power from the sun also does not create waste or air pollution like traditional forms of energy, including nuclear-powered and coal-fired power plants.

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.