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Editorial: Has the SC Legislature finally seen the light on clean energy?

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A bill the S.C. Legislature passed in May to prevent Santee Cooper from sabotaging efforts to reform or sell it included remarkably pro-clean-energy provisions. Cindi Ross Scoppe/Staff

After the Legislature melted down in April over a plan to keep Santee Cooper from interfering with efforts to reform or sell the state-owned utility, it was a relief for the Legislature to just reach an agreement on how to make that happen, without shutting down state government.

But what lawmakers agreed to in May isn’t simply better than an impasse. It’s actually a huge step toward a cleaner and cheaper energy future for South Carolina. For a Legislature that just a dozen years earlier had bet big on the riskiest and most expensive energy future possible, the provisions of H.3411 are remarkable.

The goal of the law was to stop Santee Cooper from entering into large or long contracts during a tug of war among lawmakers who want to sell the utility to NextEra, those who want to make it accountable and those who want to let it continue to do whatever it wants to do. But it also carves out exemptions for three actions Santee Cooper can take:

It can deploy up to 500 megawatts of new solar generation — enough to power tens of thousands of homes. For perspective, Santee Cooper’s first solar farm — which was also South Carolina’s first solar farm – produced 4 megawatts.

It can do “those things necessary for closing and decommissioning the Winyah Generating Station,” a 40-year-old coal-fired power plant in Georgetown County that employs 200.

It can secure “by purchase or lease one hundred megawatts of combustion turbines and minor transmission upgrades” to replace the base load capacity of Winyah, but “in no event will this include constructing a natural gas combined cycle or other major generation resource.” In other words, the company can’t build a large natural-gas facility, and it can lease only a fifth as much natural gas as the amount of solar it can build.

Embedded in all three provisions is an assumption that would have been laughed out of the Statehouse within the past decade: that clean energy is affordable and reliable. Of course the energy market has helped drive that change, as the cost of solar has plummeted. But coming just a year after the passage of the Energy Freedom Act — a pro-solar law that, like this year’s legislation, passed both bodies without any dissenting votes — the Santee Cooper law marks a dramatic shift in how the General Assembly looks at our energy future.

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As the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Blan Holman told us, although lawmakers remain deeply divided over the future of Santee Cooper, “the thing that both sides can agree on is that a coal plant is expensive and needs to be retired, natural gas is risky and solar is not risky.”

“Ten years ago, South Carolina teed up a hugely expensive and risky nuclear plant that went spectacularly wrong,” Mr. Holman said. “The smart approach now is cheap, low-risk energy chip shots, and those now come from renewable power.”

It’s true that lawmakers didn’t just pull these ideas out of a hat. Nor did they get them from environmentalists. The three provisions coincide with a plan Santee Cooper designed to slash its costs as part of a $520 million settlement with customers who argued they shouldn’t have to pay for $4 billion in debt from the collapse of the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in 2017.

But the Legislature could have made room for Santee Cooper to meet its legal obligations while still preventing it from hindering any future regulation or sale without limiting how much natural gas it could purchase. And in fact it’s easy to imagine that an earlier Legislature would have simply authorized the utility to fulfill the terms of the settlement without actually putting those pro-solar, anti-coal terms into state law.

There’s a lot of work to be done to sort out the future of Santee Cooper, and even to ensure that the utility handles these legislatively authorized clean-energy moves responsibly. But we should all be encouraged by the new approach that seems to be gaining hold in our Legislature.

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