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Bridgestone and Dominion in dispute over $2.7 million solar project at SC tire factory

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Bridgestone Americas, one of South Carolina's largest tire manufacturers, is challenging Dominion Energy over a $2.7 million solar array Bridgestone built at its factory in Aiken County. File

Bridgestone, one of South Carolina's largest tire producers, is accusing Dominion Energy of preventing the manufacturer from using a $2.7 million solar project at its factory in Aiken County. 

The international tire company filed a legal complaint this month with the state Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities in South Carolina. 

The case alleges that Dominion, the new owner of South Carolina Electric & Gas, delayed Bridgestone Americas' use of a roughly 2 megawatt solar array for more than a year.

The solar project was built to power part of Bridgestone's 2.7 million-square-foot factory in Graniteville, where it makes tires for passenger vehicles and light trucks. 

But Dominion, which supplies electricity to the plant, has yet to review the new solar array and sign off on the project so it can start producing power. 

Dominion put the project in line behind a number of other solar projects, which are being built by independent power companies who want to sell electricity back to Dominion's ratepayers.

The utility reviews those projects in the order they are submitted. That process ensures the projects meet engineering standards and won't cause problems on Dominion's electric tranmission grid.

Rhonda O'Banion, a spokeswoman for Dominion, said the utility is handling Bridgestone's solar development just like it does other projects. 

"The law does not allow Dominion Energy to provide special treatment to any solar developer, including Bridgestone," she said. "Dominion Energy is simply requiring that Bridgestone play by the same rules as everyone else."

But Bridgestone doesn't believe it should be lumped in with the other solar builders. The company argues it isn't like many of the other 375 projects that are ahead of Bridgestone in line and also waiting on a review by Dominion. 

The tire manufacturer does not intend to direct its electricity back on to Dominion's utility lines. It plans to use all of that power for its large tire-making factory in Aiken County. 

That's why the tire manufacturer is asking the utility regulators on the PSC to intervene. 

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The case could determine how quickly other commercial and industrial businesses can utilize new solar arrays in South Carolina. That's important as warehouses, manufacturing plants and data centers seek to build their own energy sources to cover part of their power needs. 

Bridgestone, for instance, said its solar array is meant to "protect itself from rising utility costs" and advance the company's "commitment to renewable energy."

The tire manufacturer, which employs 55,000 workers in the United States, said the project was part of its plan to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050. 

"The Aiken County solar facility will be the first ground array solar project for Bridgestone Corporation, and the facility is well-positioned to demonstrate how solar energy can support jobs, drive new economic activity, supplement growing energy demands and achieve sustainability goals," said Emily Weaver, a spokeswoman for Bridgestone. 

But without Dominion's review, Bridgestone is currently unable to reap the rewards of its solar construction. 

The tire plant in Aiken County uses more electricity than any other Bridgestone factory in the country, according to the complaint, and the company is currently pursuing an expansion of the facility that will boost those power needs even more. 

Bridgestone argued Dominion is undermining the $2.7 million it invested in the project and is costing the company roughly $20,000 a month in potential energy savings. 

Those estimated costs could be even higher if Dominion asks to increase the monthly power bills for Bridgestone and the utility's other ratepayers this year. Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell said the company would file a rate case with the PSC around May of this year. 

Dominion is not ready to accept Bridgestone's arguments, however. It responded to Bridgestone's allegations on Feb. 21.

The utility emphasized that Bridgestone was asking for a privilege that isn't given to other companies that want to build solar projects in Dominion's territory, which covers areas around Aiken, Beaufort, Columbia and Charleston. 

"Bridgestone asserts that it is subject to no one and no standard," Dominion's attorneys told the PSC.

The utility's lawyers said the size of the solar array made it vital that Dominion review the project. Otherwise, they argued, it could cause challenges for the "safety and reliability" of Dominion's system in South Carolina. 

It's now up to the seven utility regulators on the PSC to decide which company is right.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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