South Carolina's solar industry could catch a lifeline in the Upstate after the region's largest power company, Duke Energy, agreed to keep offering incentives for renewable energy.
The utility inked a deal this week that's intended to give ratepayers who buy electricity from Duke a financially viable way to generate their own for at least a few more months.
But it could fuel a new debate over solar power in the Statehouse: The deal will run out midway through next year's legislative session.
At issue is a program known as net metering, which gives solar users credit for every kilowatt they produce at the same rate they would pay for electricity from the power company. The one-for-one credit is contentious because large-scale solar installations are paid less per kilowatt.
The solar industry boomed after the Legislature enacted a net metering law that was meant to jump-start the business, but lawmakers put a limit on how many customers each utility had to let into their programs. Each utility has a cap, and Duke Energy hit its limit over the summer.
Its agreement with solar groups will let more people in. If the deal is approved, ratepayers will have until mid-March to sign up for net metering — unless the Legislature extends the program further.
The temporary extension will have to win the blessing of the state's Public Service Commission, a group of seven regulators who oversee electric utilities. It's not clear when they will take up the issue.
In a statement, Duke said the deal would buy time to hash out a permanent fix. It reached the arrangement with a handful of solar industry groups and Sunrun, which is one of the nation's largest installers of solar panels.
"We believe this temporary extension of net metering will provide consistency and certainty for customers and the renewable energy industry in South Carolina while Duke Energy and other interested stakeholders develop recommendations for consensus, common-sense policies," Duke spokesman Ryan Mosier said.
Solar policy was already expected to be a big question for the Legislature to take up next year after lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have addressed the net metering cap. Adding to the pressure, South Carolina Electric & Gas, which sells power from Greenwood to Charleston, is expected to reach its cap next year.
"This is very much seen as a short-term, good faith gesture to get us a Band-Aid or a short term fix in place so everybody can keep the collaborative spirit going and work toward a longer-term fix," said Thad Culley, regional director of Vote Solar, which was a party to the deal. "Ultimately, this is going to have to be put to the Legislature."
The deal won't affect electricity users who get their power from Duke Energy's Progress subsidiary, which covers much of the Pee Dee.