MOST PEOPLE would put the breaking point at Jan. 31. I think it might turn out to be April 5.
Jan. 31 is the day the House voted to punish SCE&G for the way it mishandled a single project. It was something legislators facing re-election this year really had no choice but to do, given the magnitude of the mishandling: a $9 billion nuclear construction project abandoned amidst monumental mismanagement, and customers still paying $37 million a month to provide stockholders a profit from that project.
But last week, legislators had a choice. They could have let SCE&G and the other regulated utilities continue to write the rules for our electric power grid. Instead, they chose to reject SCE&G and everyone associated with it. They chose to pass a solar-energy bill that the utilities had tried desperately to sabotage.
The vote was not about political ideology, although there were ideological arguments for the bill: Liberals have been pushing solar energy for years, with far less success, because they believe that carbon-based energy is destroying the planet. Libertarians and a growing number of conservatives argue that the state shouldn’t prop up favored industries or companies and that electricity consumers shouldn’t be held hostage by monopolies.
Mostly, though, the overwhelmingly Republican House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill (whose primary sponsor is the leading Democratic candidate for governor) because legislators no longer believe anything that SCANA subsidiary SCE&G tells them.
It was an extraordinary repudiation of what until just recently was arguably the most powerful legislative lobby in South Carolina. As the House’s V.C. Summer investigative chairman GOP Rep. Peter McCoy explained: “No one wants to talk or negotiate with them, based on what we’ve learned. The trust has been absolutely lost.”
Lawmaking is all about trust, because there’s no way that legislators can understand all the details of all the bills they vote on — and the solar debate was extraordinarily complicated. At issue was whether to lift an industry-designed cap on how much solar energy the utilities have to purchase from customers who produce more energy than they can use immediately, a program called net metering. Buried within that question was whether people who don’t have solar panels should have to subsidize the price break given to those with solar panels. If so by how much. And how you define “subsidize” — a question that is nowhere near as clear-cut as it seems.
By one utility-favored definition, the mere fact that people with solar panels buy less electricity from the utility means those customers are subsidized by everyone else.
At the start of the debate, pro-utility legislators were winning close votes to push through the industry-written H.5045, which would force people who wanted to sell excess solar power to the utility to sell all of it, cut-rate, and buy all of the electricity they use from the utility.
But solar supporters hammered and hammered at the trust issue, reminding their colleagues that SCE&G had written the Base Load Review Act, which made it virtually impossible for regulators to reject the rate increases for the failing nuclear project. That SCE&G had in fact jacked up those rates, while withholding vital information that regulators might have been able to use to stop the increases. That the main sponsor of H.5045, House Labor, Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer, had carried SCE&G’s water for the Base Load Review Act.
The tide was already turning when one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Mike Forrester, was caught trying to make a procedural motion that would have violated the House’s rules; he admitted it, pleading ignorance. When questions were raised a few minutes later about whether another utility supporter, Rep. Dan Hamilton, was trying to do the same thing, he denied it, but the episode underlined the question of trustworthiness. Within minutes, a 51-50 utilities advantage had evaporated, and the bill was killed on a 61-39 vote.
From there, the House made easy work of passing Rep. James Smith’s H. 4421, which lifted the solar cap and generally rejected the utilities’ definition of subsidies, though it did (appropriately) allow utilities to purchase that excess solar energy at a lower cost than they sell it. One poison pill amendment by Rep. Forrester was defeated 72-26. The final vote for the bill was 64-33, which is extraordinary even in a body where opponents often switch to the winning side once it becomes clear they have lost the fight.
Now, there are tons of caveats to this story, starting with the biggie: It doesn’t matter what the House does if the Senate doesn’t go along. And since the Senate still hasn’t passedthe House’s plan to temporarily end SCE&G’s $37 million-per-month nuclear surcharge, Senate approval of the pro-solar bill is anything but certain.
Another biggie: It is far too early to tell whether this signals a long-term shift or just another outburst of anger that will ebb whenever the courts decide how much of the nuclear costs have to be borne by the ratepayers and how much by the stockholders — and we find out whether SCE&G will be gobbled up by Dominion Energy.
But Thursday’s vote marked a sea change from the time, not that long ago, when only Democrats and a handful of Republicans supported solar, and even the solar supporters marched lock-step with SCE&G on anything else the utility wanted.
Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.