COLUMBIA — While new tariffs on solar panels are casting dark clouds on a rapidly growing industry around the country, proponents in South Carolina say sun-based energy development can continue to shine in the Palmetto State if lawmakers can clear hurdles standing in the way.
On Monday, President Donald Trump announced he would impose 30 percent tariffs on solar panel imports, casting the decision as a reaffirmation of his "America First" rhetoric to restrict Chinese manufacturers.
The move drew howls from American installers, who said it would jack up costs and risk thousands of jobs. Critics in South Carolina spanned the political spectrum.
"It's really frustrating," said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin. "We are supposed to be about growing business and growing jobs and keeping the economy moving, and the president goes out and throws out that tariff, which I believe is going to be a tremendous blow not just to South Carolina but to the whole country."
But the collapse of a multibillion dollar nuclear project in Fairfield County already had solar advocates eyeing an opening in South Carolina. With the latest loss at the federal level, the solar industry has turned even more focus to state governments, especially in South Carolina, which employs an estimated 3,000 installers, sales staff and project planners.
In the wake of the decision, Ed Fenster, the co-founder of home solar panel company Sunrun, said he hopes "states with huge solar workforces, from South Carolina to California, will step up to overcome this federal headwind."
Some environmentalists are skeptical that any action at the state level will be able to overcome the impact of the tariffs.
Eddy Moore, the energy and climate program director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, said the tariffs would hurt not only a booming solar industry in the state and country but also a booming import business at the state ports, too.
"It's particularly anti-South Carolina," he said. "There's no way the state can realistically counteract a major federal tax on solar jobs."
But several key legislators are determined to try. A new energy caucus in the Legislature, led by Ballentine and Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, met for the first time this month with a major focus on encouraging solar development.
The timing of the nuclear project's demise has sparked particular urgency for energy companies looking to fill the void.
"I think right now we need to take advantage of the opportunity that is presented to us," Ballentine said. "Were it not for this fiasco I don't believe the guys from solar or any other energy alternative would have a seat at the table."
The top priority for the solar industry in this legislative session is a bill sponsored by state Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat and candidate for governor, that would raise a state limit on residential solar energy, set in 2014 as part of a landmark measure that eased restrictions on the industry.
Since then the industry has exploded in South Carolina, with installation companies hiring hundreds of new employees. The solar workforce has quadrupled in just a few short years. Now there's little time to waste.
In filings to the Public Service Commission, Duke Energy has projected that one of the two utilities the power company operates in the the state, Duke Energy Carolinas, expects to hit the cap as soon as the second quarter of 2018. South Carolina Electric & Gas has forecasted that the limit will be hit in early 2019.
The consequences of reaching the limit have already been demonstrated before in Nevada, where solar companies and their many employees fled the state in 2016 before a solution was worked out last year.
Utilities have opposed lifting caps, arguing it forces non-solar customers to effectively subsidize homeowners with solar panels.
"We don’t believe that shifting the costs of private solar generators utilizing Net Energy Metering onto all 717,000 of our electric customers will promote sustainable, long-term solar growth in South Carolina," said SCANA spokeswoman Ginny Jones.
While the utilities and electric cooperatives have long presented a commanding influence in the Statehouse, the solar movement has recently recruited valuable political allies.
Just days after the Trump administration's tariff decision came out, former South Carolina GOP Party Chairman Matt Moore took over at the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, a group created in 2016 to push for more solar power in the state. In a Republican-dominated Statehouse, well-connected boosters like Moore may be key for winning over more support.
"Solar energy is conservative," Moore said, explaining why he took on the new role. "It gives citizens the options to produce their own power instead of buying from the monopolies."
Since the nuclear project failed, Gov. Henry McMaster has emphasized that a key lesson from the debacle is to avoid "putting all our eggs in one basket" by diversifying the state's energy sources.
But he has vocally welcomed solar companies to the state, lobbied the Trump administration against the tariffs — albeit unsuccessfully — and says solar will continue to be an important part of the South Carolina's energy future.
"It’s a good clean industry and it’s one that we want to have," said McMaster, who has gathered thousands in campaign contributions from solar executives and companies. "I’m interested in anything that provides plentiful power to the people of South Carolina."
Supporters say the biggest hurdle will be legislative inertia. Consequential bills can take a long time to wind their way through the Statehouse, competing for attention against a host of other major issues.
"Change is often difficult in South Carolina," Moore said. "Things tend to happen slowly."
Even if the measure passes through the S.C. House, where lawmakers are optimistic, the Senate may present additional challenges. Just a few opponents there can make movement near impossible.
Differences between the two bodies have thwarted solar initiatives before. Last year, a bill to reduce property taxes for renewable energy projects in South Carolina earned widespread support in the Senate before fizzling out in the House.
For solar proponents, that just adds more urgency this year.
"Solar development is a vital part of the energy future for our state that's going to bring us back to competitive rates," said Smith, "if we make the right decisions."
Andrew Brown and Bo Peterson contributed to this report.