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After Coming Up Short in 2018, Lawmakers Again Push for Solar Expansion

Solar John Matthews

Longtime state Sen. John Matthews, flanked by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, speaks Jan. 10 about legislation that would expand solar power in South Carolina.

“Last year, solar came so close.”

That is the sentiment shared by Republican state Rep. Peter McCoy when discussing a bill from 2018 that would have lifted limits for rooftop solar power in South Carolina. However, McCoy and many of his lawmaker colleagues — from both sides of the aisle — are set to seek a solar expansion once again.

In 2018, a bipartisan bill that would have lifted limits on solar energy sailed through preliminary votes in the House, but pro-utility lawmakers used procedural moves to force a two-thirds majority vote in a final reading. While the final vote tally in favor of eliminating the solar cap was 61-44, that failed to reach two-thirds majority.

Now lawmakers are taking another swing at a solar expansion, with legislation set to be filed in both the Senate and House. Some lawmakers and solar advocates have argued that a failure to lift the current 2 percent cap on net metering could discourage solar panel companies and trigger the loss of up to 3,000 jobs in South Carolina.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, net metering is "a billing mechanism that allows homeowners and businesses that generate their own electricity with their solar energy system to deliver power they do not use back into the grid and receive a credit."

McCoy, the fifth-term representative from Charleston and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he has seen a rise in the public’s interest in solar energy.

“I knocked on doors in Charleston in my last re-election and everybody talked about solar,” the lawmaker says. “Every single person. Every door I went to talked about solar. But, listen, like [former Georgia and Miami football] coach Mark Richt says, it’s time to finish the drill. Last year we came close, but it’s time to finish the drill.”

The push for a solar expansion in South Carolina continues to be a bit of a unique political animal in that it is genuinely bipartisan. At a Jan. 10 news conference at the State House, a healthy mix of Republicans and Democrats — including Richland County Dems such as state Reps. Beth Bernstein and Seth Rose — gathered to show their support for the energy initiative.

Rose, who is beginning his first term in the Legislature after formerly serving on Richland County Council, says he’ll be a co-sponsor of the solar push in the House.

“This initiative is about the future and the citizens of South Carolina having a clean, renewable energy alternative,” Rose tells Free Times.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican with a libertarian streak, says increased solar power in the Palmetto State could help break up the stranglehold major utilities have on the state.

Davis thinks that, after SCANA and Santee Cooper’s multi-billion dollar nuclear reactor construction boondoggle at V.C. Summer, citizens could be ready to embrace competition from an alternative energy option.

“This bill is primarily about learning the lessons of Fairfield County and V.C. Summer, and recognizing they are reflective of how our energy production system in South Carolina is broken,” Davis says. “Right now, what we have is South Carolina divided up into geographic regions and mega-utilities are given territorial monopolies in regard to those regions. … What this bill is about is taking down and opening up those monopolies to competition.

“If an independent power producer can come in and demonstrate that they can generate power more cheaply, they ought to be able to sell that power to the grid and have those savings passed on to the ratepayers.”

The proposed legislation would also create a program for low-income customers to subscribe to a portion of output from a large-scale solar facility and receive a credit on their utility bill.

State Sen. John Matthews, the Orangeburg Democrat who has been in the Legislature since the 1970s, is in favor of the solar expansion and the side program it would create.

“One of the processes I like about this bill is that it creates a community organization that will make solar energy available, and cheaper, for those folks who live in moderate and low-income communities,” Matthews says. “I really believe that, once you engage the process, engage competition, engage alternative ideas, you’ll find that all of us will be better off in our communities.”

Matt Moore is the former chairman of the state Republican Party. He’s now heading up the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, a group pushing to remove barriers that limit the expansion of solar power in the state. He says he’s not surprised that the renewed solar expansion efforts have gained Democratic and Republican supporters.

“South Carolina is a uniquely diverse state,” Moore tells Free Times. “The support for solar energy is indicative of that. It says something when people are gathered from the Upstate all the way to the beach behind an issue. That underlines the support and need for this bill to get a fair hearing this session.”

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