State Politics

Is solar back on track? Bill to save rooftop solar industry moves to SC House vote

A bill to keep the S.C. rooftop solar industry alive for the next two years could be considered by the state House as early as next week after it won a committee’s approval Thursday.

The bill, a compromise involving conservationists, the solar industry and utilities, hit a last-minute snag Wednesday after questioning by advocates for the poor and elderly. However, the proposal was amended Thursday in an effort to address those concerns.

Other amendments were added in an attempt to resolve disputes between developers of industrial-scale solar farms and Duke Energy over the length of solar power sales agreements.

“Clean energy advocates are pleased that it had a unanimous vote,’’ said Alan Hancock of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “We look forward to discussing the issue on the House floor.’’

State Rep. Bill Sandifer, a key player in energy legislation, plans to add his name to the bill as a co-sponsor, a move that should give the proposal more weight when it reaches the House floor. Sandifer, R-Oconee, a supporter of the state’s major utilities, chairs the Labor Commerce and Industry Committee that passed the solar bill Thursday.

The bill eliminates a cap on the expansion of rooftop solar in South Carolina until 2021, when the state Public Service Commission would propose how to regulate the solar industry. That means, for the next two years, new customers who install solar panels on their roofs will get favorable rates for power they produce and sell to utilities.

Those rates are a key to homeowners who install rooftop solar to save money on their monthly power bills. Without the higher rates paid by utilities, the rooftop solar industry could come to a standstill, industry officials say. Homeowners with existing rooftop solar panels already get those rates as a result of a 2014 law.

Solar grew so much in Duke Energy’s northwest S.C. territory that the 2 percent cap on sun power was reached last year. The cap has not been reached in SCE&G’s service territory around Columbia and Charleston, or Duke’s eastern S.C. territory, but it is expected to this year. Rooftop solar officials say the 2 percent cap already has chilled solar expansion in the Upstate and will do so in other areas if it is not lifted in the new legislation.

The compromise bill, which follows a bitter legislative fight last year, has multiple other elements, including a section examining how the state will regulate large-scale solar projects that produce power for big utilities.

But advocates for the poor complained they were not involved in the compromise discussions. During a hearing Wednesday, they told legislators the bill didn’t offer enough protection for low-income South Carolinians who don’t use solar power. Their fear is the poor and elderly might be charged more by power companies to make up for revenues that those utilities lose to the solar industry.

However, changes to the bill Thursday increased protections for consumers, according to the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff, AARP South Carolina and the Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

While not advocating the solar bill, Appleseed and AARP won’t oppose the legislation, representatives said after the vote.

“We will continue to monitor it,’’ said Appleseed director Sue Berkowitz

One issue not addressed in the bill is a subsidy that utilities are eager to maintain. Critics say the subsidy allows utilities to charge customers for income they lose to competing solar businesses..

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.