South Carolina’s electric utilities won a legislative victory at the expense of millions of customers on Wednesday.
The state House voted, 61-44, in favor of a bill that would have made it easier and more cost-effective for more South Carolina residents to benefit from rooftop solar power. But House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, invoked a technicality that required a two-thirds majority for the bill to pass.
In other words, even though a majority of the state’s representatives voted in favor of the measure, it’s likely dead for the year. That’s a shame.
Rooftop solar is one of the most effective ways for customers to reduce their electric bills. That’s particularly critical right now, given the high costs related to the failed nuclear reactors abandoned by SCANA and Santee Cooper outside of Columbia last year.
“Solar is, without a doubt, the best option to grasp control over your power bills and proactively bring them down,” said Tyson Grinstead, director of public policy with Sunrun, one of the country’s largest residential solar power companies.
Without a measure to increase the state’s 2 percent cap on peak rooftop solar electricity generation — as the bill that failed Wednesday would have done — it will be harder for South Carolina homeowners to take advantage of solar power. No wonder a majority of legislators voted for it.
The lawmakers who managed to kill the bill have received a combined $30,000 in campaign contributions from electric utilities or related interest groups over the past year or so. Mr. Lucas alone has taken in at least $5,000 since 2017.
“They are showing the people of South Carolina that they run this state,” Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, one of the bill’s sponsors, said of the utility companies that lobbied against the bill.
“The popular support is strong. The bipartisan votes are there,” said Blan Holman of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The only thing lacking right now is leadership at the very top to push aside the utility tactics that got us into this $9 billion [nuclear] hole in the first place.”
It’s not hard to see why utilities want less rooftop solar. Residential solar power means customers use less electricity from other sources. And state law requires that utilities credit customers for power they generate at a 1-to-1 rate.
Critics also argue that with rooftop solar other customers effectively subsidize the other infrastructure that solar customers still rely on during cloudy days or at night. That’s true, but the impact on power bills is minuscule.
And solar power benefits other customers by reducing the overall demand for electricity generated by expensive, polluting sources. That means utilities have less need to invest in costly new power plants, which saves customers money.
Rooftop solar generates thousands of high-paying, local jobs in South Carolina. Those jobs are at risk without an expansion on the 2 percent cap.
Solar also means fewer climate-changing emissions, which helps mitigate long-term challenges like sea level rise that threaten the Lowcountry.
The House bill may be dead for the year, but there are other ways — including legislation by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort — that lawmakers can still help boost residential solar power in South Carolina. It should be a priority.
And the lawmakers who slyly killed a needed, popular measure should see the light and work on behalf of their constituents rather than their utility donors.