Politics & Government

Solar war calms; rate that helps lower power bills will continue

Homeowners who want to lower their power bills by installing rooftop solar panels won a victory Thursday when the S.C. House lifted restrictions that had threatened to stifle the state’s emerging solar industry.

The compromise legislation, approved by a 110-0 vote, allows homeowners who install solar panels on their roofs during the next two years to get favorable rates that can cut their monthly power bills. Those rates now are available to homeowners who have solar panels.

The bill still needs Senate approval, as well as Gov. Henry McMaster’s signature, to become law.

Thursday’s vote is in stark contrast to a bitter fight in the House a year ago, when major utilities — led by Duke Power — succeeded in killing a bill that would have eliminated limits on the solar industry’s growth.

This year, lawmakers brokered a deal to essentially keep the status quo until the S.C. Public Service Commission addresses long-term issues in 2021. The PSC ultimately would decide how much homeowners should be paid for extra power that their rooftop panels produce and power utilities buy for use on the electrical grid.

Most solar customers use a combination of power they produce and energy from utilities, such as Duke and SCE&G. They now are paid the same rate for producing solar power as they pay for power that the utilities produce. But the utilities want to lower the amount they pay homeowners, saying it costs them money to accept solar energy from homeowners.

The deal approved Thursday includes continuing subsidies to power companies for the next two years. Utilities say they need those subsidies to accommodate solar growth. The bill also includes language intended to resolve disputes between industrial-scale solar farm developers and utilities.

Former state Rep. James Smith, who led the unsuccessful fight last year to eliminate the limits on rooftop solar expansion, said Thursday’s deal only postpones the resolution of disputes between power utilities and solar companies.

“There is a lot that still needs to be done. That has been moved to the PSC,’’ said Smith, a solar energy advocate. “But this is also an important step for more South Carolinians to be able to access the power of the sun.’’

The solar industry has grown in South Carolina since the Legislature approved a bill in 2014 designed to remove obstacles to solar energy. However, the 2014 law, a compromise between renewable energy advocates and the state’s big utilities, limited how much solar energy could expand. Now, rooftop solar has grown so much that it has reached, or is close to reaching, the limits on its growth set in the 2014 law.

“The problem is it grew faster than anyone of us ever imagined,’’ said state Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg Republican, a key negotiator in this year’s solar bill.

Conservationists and solar industry officials applauded the deal.

“We are pleased to see a compromise that addresses short-term issues,’’ John Tynan, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said in a statement.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.