A glimmer of sunlight has appeared in the stormy debate about solar energy in South Carolina. Solar energy advocates and utility representatives, long at odds with each other, have come to a compromise, which bodes well for the state.
The deal still needs to be approved by the Legislature and checked out by the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff. Both should welcome the proposal. Indeed, it drew no criticism during a Senate subcommittee meeting last week.
In short, the compromise would make it easier for homeowners and businesses to save money on power bills by leasing and using solar panels.
It would also raise the state's limit on the use of solar power tenfold, from 100 kilowatts to one megawatt for non-residential use.
South Carolina has lagged most of the country in the use of solar energy, in good measure because of rules that discourage its use. The state's installed solar capacity is among the country's lowest.
Popular support for increasing solar power usage has surfaced across the state. And SCE&G and Santee Cooper are developing their own solar farms. That's a good change.
Heretofore utilities here have dragged their heels, fearing that too much solar energy would threaten their ability to provide adequate electricity. (See Llewellyn King's column on today's Commentary page.)
This compromise is reason for optimism in that it is embraced by utilities, customers and environmentalists who applaud using solar energy instead of polluting fossil fuels.
A bill presented last year didn't fare well. One sticking point was that it would have alllowed customers to purchase solar panels and use the power directly. Utilities were concerned that unregulated companies would form as a result of the bill and compete with them.
This bill allows companies to lease panels to businesses and individuals. That gives utilities some control and gives more customers the financial ability to go solar.
One shortcoming of the bill, however, is that it doesn't address obstacles that non-profits face in acquiring and using solar panels. The purchase price is prohibitive for most of them, and tax laws make leasing them unfeasible. Utilities have agreed to come up with programs to help non-profits afford solar panels.
A special Energy Advisory Council of utility representatives and solar energy advocates spent months last year researching the issue. It found no good reason South Carolina can't do better than it does now in the solar energy area.
It showed that increasing solar energy production would cost utilities money while allowing consumers savings. But the estimated loss of $55 million a year is miniscule compared to utilities' $7.1 billion in revenue.
And it showed that South Carolinians are ready for more solar energy.
The legislation would be a wise first step toward a healthier environment - and some consumer relief in the pocketbook.
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