Solar energy could be option (copy)

People walk through the Colleton Solar Farm in Walterboro. The SC Public Service Commission is deciding how much Duke and Dominion Energy have to pay for the solar power the Legislature has required them to purchase. 

In South Carolina, as in most states, we don’t have much choice about how much we pay for electricity, because we don’t have much choice about where we purchase our electricity. State law gives Dominion Energy the exclusive right to provide electricity in one part of the state, Duke Energy in another part, electric cooperatives and municipal power companies in other parts.

If we don’t like our assigned energy provider, we can rely on the solar panels on our homes for electricity, but that’s a drastic and risky change most people aren’t willing to make.

There are a lot of disadvantages, and something philosophically objectionable to free-market Americans, about this system of regulated monopolies. But it was created and continues to operate because there are also advantages. Primarily, it allows state officials to do something investor-owned utilities aren’t likely to do with such an essential service: look out for the public good, regardless of how that affects profits.

We can argue about how well state law allows officials to do that, and how well those officials actually do that, but that’s the reason for the system.

It’s against that backdrop that the Legislature passed a law this year requiring Dominion and Duke to buy electricity from large solar farms, and state regulators are now deciding how much the utilities will have to pay.

Utilities argue that increasing the prices will result in higher power bills. It might, at least in the short term. But it’s a strange argument for Duke and Dominion to make, because allowing them to operate as monopolies results in higher prices for consumers. Allowing them guaranteed profits on the costs of building expensive power plants results in higher prices for consumers. We allow both because lawmakers want to ensure that everybody in South Carolina has as much electricity as they need, whenever and wherever they need it. Whether or not this is the best way to guarantee that, the goal is unquestionably appropriate.

A goal of increasing the use of solar energy in our state also is unquestionably appropriate, for at least three reasons.

First, even if upfront costs are high, the long-term cost of solar energy is low, because unlike the natural gas or coal that fuels power plants, we don’t have to pay for the sunshine that fuels solar panels. (Santee Cooper, which isn’t regulated because it’s a state entity, has made increasing its solar capacity a key part of its strategy to cut costs while providing reliable energy.)

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Second, just like a smart investment portfolio, our energy supply needs to be diverse — and we need to have as much of it generated here in the United States as possible.

And third, solar energy is clean energy, which doesn’t create carbon emissions that contribute to the rising seas that threaten to drown Charleston and other coastal areas.

It’s true that solar can’t be our only or even our primary source of energy, because it isn’t generated at night or on cloudy days. But it can be a much larger part than it is. And that will only happen if the S.C. Public Service Commission sets the price high enough and the contracts long enough for more solar producers to move to South Carolina or expand their current facilities.