Lawmakers this week are expected to pass a breakthrough bill that lifts a cap on rooftop solar installations and incentivizes utility-scale solar farms to set up shop in South Carolina.
Importantly, the bill would protect about 3,000 jobs related to rooftop installations; guarantee “net metering,” or full compensation for electricity generated by homeowners who invest in rooftop setups; and require utilities to buy electricity from big solar producers under long-term contracts, which is expected to spur investment in solar projects.
Those benefits should start flowing immediately upon the bill’s passage. The more technical, longer-term issues involving solar energy, such as businesses being able to contract directly with solar suppliers, will be worked out by the Public Service Commission over the next few years.
In the bigger picture, the S.C. Energy Freedom Act should set the state on a path toward holding down ratepayer costs, reducing its reliance on polluting fossil fuels and injecting competition into what is now a system of regulated utility monopolies.
Both ratepayers and utilities should welcome the expansion on solar energy in the wake of multibillion-dollar losses associated with the scuttled V.C. Summer nuclear reactors and with the specter of offshore oil drilling hanging over the state.
One of the champions of the legislation, Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he was confident the bill would pass the Senate, thanks to some key compromises and after winning unanimous support in the House early this legislative session. A similar bill was defeated in the last session.
Under the current bill, utilities would be required to extend contracts of at least 10 years to big solar producers that can deliver electricity at or below the utility’s own production costs. That would give solar companies the certainty they need to get financing for large-scale projects and help insulate ratepayers and utilities from fluctuating fuel costs for coal or natural gas.
Sen. Wes Climer, R-York, who initially objected to the bill because it requires utilities to buy solar electricity at what he characterized as artificially low rates, eventually agreed to a compromise. Beyond 10 years, the PSC will be tasked with adjusting solar contract rates to more fully compensate utilities for distributing solar electricity and billing customers. That’s a fair shake for utilities and ratepayers.
As it is, South Carolina is punching well below its weight. North Carolina, second only to California in solar output, produces up to 5,250 megawatts of solar electricity compared to S.C.’s peak of about 660 MW. We can do better — and help hold ratepayer costs in check by supplementing our energy diet with a healthy dose of clean energy.
Though the state’s solar policy will continue to evolve, the legislation is definitely a step in the right direction, and one ratepayers support. It also has broad backing by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League, the Audubon Society and several solar industry associations. That should be good enough reason for the Senate to approve the bill and for the House to sign off on those changes and send it on to Gov. Henry McMaster for his signature.