Cheaper, more efficient solar technology. State and federal tax breaks. Climbing electrical rates.

If you go

What: The Charleston Area League of Women Voters is holding a wind and solar energy forum.

When: 6-8 p.m. April 10.

Where: North Charleston City Hall, 2500 City Hall Lane.

Price: The event is free and open to the public.

More info: Panelists include: Dr. Nikolaos Rigas, senior scientist and director, Clemson University Wind Turbine Testing Facility; Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director, Coastal Conservation League; Robert E. Long, general manager of resource planning, SCANA; and Thomas J. French, executive director, SC Clean Energy Business Alliance.

The three should combine to make for a perfectly sunny day in South Carolina for those interested in installing new solar panels on their home, business or office building.

The electricity generated from solar power, plus tax savings, can make the panels pay for themselves in seven years or less. And South Carolina’s climate makes it one of the better states for solar power.

So why does it currently rank near the bottom?

It’s a complicated story, but the prime holdup is a question of how solar’s rise would affect utilities that, even with a solar boom, still would provide the vast majority of the state’s electricity.

Several state lawmakers are working on a solution to make it much easier for residents and other property owners to get in on the action, but the clock is ticking.

Grant Reeves, vice president with The InterTech Group in North Charleston, noted the federal tax credit for solar is good only through 2016.

“If we don’t do it in the next few years, we’ll miss our window of opportunity in South Carolina,” he said, “and we won’t make it up.”

Affordable solar

As Reeves surveys the outside of InterTech’s buildings off East Montague Avenue in North Charleston, he eyes a large array of solar panels the company installed last December.

Reeves said Department of Energy statistics show that North Charleston accounts for about two thirds of all solar power currently being generated in the state — largely because of the massive solar array on the roof of Boeing’s assembly plant.

Those companies could afford to finance their own solar projects. It’s often more difficult for homeowners and others who don’t have thousands of dollars on hand to pay for them up front.

InterTech and other companies see a business opportunity for helping property owners finance solar power, a practice not currently permitted under state law.

State Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, is one of many cosponsors of a bill that would change that.

“It’s a good bill. It would allow people to do this stuff who probably couldn’t afford it anyway,” he said.

Reeves has made several trips to Columbia to urge its passage. “What this bill does, by allowing a leasing program, is that anybody who pays a power bill can afford solar on their roof. That is what’s so powerful about this.”

The money that homeowners save on their power bill would go toward paying for their solar panels.

At some point, the savings would just go directly into their pockets.

Legislative hurdles

Despite such rosy financial scenarios and the prospects of many new jobs that could be created along the way, the bill may not pass this year — largely because utilities remain wary.

Eric Boomhower, public affairs manager for SCANA Corp., said the state’s Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee has asked its Energy Advisory Council to study the solar panel leasing issue.

“We continue to believe it would be prudent to ensure that our state’s lawmakers thoroughly understand the implications that any proposed legislation might have for the electric system that all South Carolina residents and businesses rely on,” he said.

Some consider that review a delaying tactic, but some lawmakers, such as state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said utilities have a legitimate concern.

“I think the utilities are correct in saying it’s a significant change in the way we’ve done business and provide power in the state,” he said. “We need to be careful and deliberate.”

Very few homeowners would be expected to draw all their power from solar panels, so the question is: How do they pay toward the upkeep of the grid that they still need?

Also, Smith said writing new rules for solar should be done in a way that doesn’t hurt the state’s economic development prospects.

“We encourage businesses to come here because power is relatively inexpensive,” he said. “We need to maintain that competitive status,” he said.

It’s unclear whether those questions can be cleared up in the next few weeks so the bill can move forward this year.

“Nothing is as simple as it ought to be,” Campbell said.

Ray of hope

Experts agree solar power is never going to be a huge player here. The bills would cap solar power at 2 percent of all power generated here.

Meanwhile, its advocates — and those interested in other renewable energy sources — are trying to spread the word.

On April 10, the League of Women Voters will hold a forum in North Charleston. Several experts, from both the utility side and renewable side, will discuss why South Carolina lags behind and what can be done.

Anne Fortson of the league said the event grew out of growing interest in wind and solar energy.

“We understand it’s a somewhat controversial subject,” she said. “The tension, I think, is really among the utilities at this point who kind of have a monopoly. That’s really the main issue.”

As more people understand the potential for solar power, the more pressure ultimately will be put on lawmakers to rewrite the rules.

“We are behind North Carolina and Georgia — and way behind California,” Fortson added. “We have to get on the bandwagon.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.