Imagine letting the hot summer sun power the air conditioner that keeps your house cool. What a cost saver. Solar power can help homeowners cut their electricity bills year round, of course, but only thanks to a provision known as “net metering.”
Basically, net metering means that utility companies have to pay customers back for the excess power they generate and pump back into the grid. It’s what makes an investment in solar energy affordable.
But South Carolina law caps the number of customers who can take advantage of net metering at 2 percent. When the law was put in place in 2014, that number was considered ambitious. Duke Energy, which serves Upstate customers, hit the limit this week. SCE&G is well on its way.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature failed repeatedly this year to compromise on efforts to raise the cap even temporarily. The House caved to utility pressure and failed to pass a bill even though a majority of representatives initially voted in favor of it. Then the Senate opposed a budget amendment that would have increased the cap until the start of the next legislative session in January.
The state Office of Regulatory Staff could still step in to directly negotiate a temporary fix. But it is disappointing that state lawmakers couldn’t take even modest steps to help electric ratepayers, particularly in a year dominated by discussion over the fallout of the failed construction of two nuclear reactors.
It took nearly a year for the Legislature to trim SCE&G electric bills of most of the charges related to those reactors, for example. South Carolina residents can hardly be blamed for wanting to take matters into their own hands by installing rooftop solar panels.
And it’s not just customers who stand to lose without action to lift the cap. More than 1,000 solar jobs could leave Upstate South Carolina almost immediately. Some companies have already moved their workers to other markets.
Thousands more employees and dozens of small businesses could be forced to move out of the state or close up shop if lawmakers and state officials fail to make a change.
Utilities argue that net metering amounts to a subsidy for solar households on the backs of customers who can’t or won’t install their own panels. But that’s mostly a smokescreen.
Homes with solar power use less energy, reducing the overall demand for electricity and thereby cutting back on the need to build expensive new power plants. In other words, installing solar panels helps keep power bills lower for everybody.
The only damage is to utility company profits. State-regulated utilities earn a fixed return on their investments. If they spend more money, they make more money. They would prefer to build, say, a $9 billion nuclear plant than a $1 million solar farm. And when customers go solar, they don’t make any extra money at all.
A bill that floated around the Legislature this year would have helped shift those incentives. It didn’t pass.
The threat to South Carolina’s home solar industry is no longer hypothetical. Jobs are at stake and families stand to lose money for investing in sensible, beneficial upgrades. Do what’s right for South Carolina residents, not utility company profits.