Nuclear debacle energizes push for solar power expansion
As the fight continues over whether South Carolinians should get their money back for a failed nuclear project, another battle is developing that could affect monthly electricity bills.
South Carolina is nearing a state-set limit on solar energy that would curtail the expansion of rooftop solar systems for homeowners, industry officials say.
In the next two years, SCE&G and Duke Energy are expected to reach the state-mandated limit, making it harder for people to add solar panels to their roofs, say government regulators, solar energy advocates and conservationists.
The state limit is an issue lawmakers are expected to look at while energy issues are on the public’s mind.
The Legislature already is dealing with the fallout from SCE&G’s failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project, which cost the utility’s electricity customers almost $2 billion. Legislators also are wrestling with whether to oppose or endorse offshore oil drilling.
“We can’t allow this (opportunity) to pass without advancing lower cost energy options for citizens, whether its through solar’’ or other means, said state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, a Democratic candidate for governor. “It would be a terrible mistake not to make progress here.”
Solar Facilities are increasing in South Carolina
A 6.8 megawatt solar facility with 31,000 solar panels is producing electricity in Saluda. The Solar power industry is lobbying the South Carolina legislature to order state counties to give it tax breaks. The tax breaks, the industry says, are necessary to attract solar investment to the state.
2014 law includes cap on solar power
Since the Legislature voted in 2014 to ease some restrictions on solar power, the industry has added about 2,000 new jobs in the Palmetto State, dramatically increasing the number of home solar systems that South Carolinians use to save money, energy statistics show.
But the 2014 law came with limits.
State utilities, fearful a wholesale move to solar power could cut into their profits, negotiated a limit on the expansion of solar energy. That included a 2 percent cap on a power company’s peak average demand for energy over five years.
“Each utility is closing in on that limit,’’ said Dawn Hipp, an official with the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff.
Unless the cap is increased or eliminated — as Rep. Smith proposes in a bill — solar advocates say it will cost the state jobs and prevent some homeowners from installing panels through solar leases.
“If we hit the cap, it could be devastating — and we are not just crying wolf,’’ said Eddy Moore, energy issues director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
Solar is a clean, less polluting way to provide electricity and save consumers’ money, while also reducing demand on the state’s traditional power sources, conservationists, industry officials and some state lawmakers say. Many homeowners who have leased solar panels for their rooftops have enjoyed lower monthly power bills, industry officials contend.
‘Next year is too late’
Solar power in South Carolina is threatened by its own success, in part, industry backers say.
As of 2016, workers had installed more than 4,000 rooftop solar systems for lease to S.C. homeowners, according to the Office of Regulatory Staff. In 2014, workers had installed fewer than 300 systems, according to Sunrun, a national solar company that leases panels to homeowners.
That rapid increase has caused South Carolina’s solar expansion to approach the state-set cap on it sooner than expected, officials say.
Sunrun officials, who are to address a legislative committee Wednesday, are making an all-out effort to eliminate the solar cap before Duke or SCE&G reach the limit.
“Next year is too late’’ to take action, said Tyson Grinstead, a Sunrun official in South Carolina.