Despite tariffs on imported solar panels that can inflate the cost by up to 30 percent, state lawmakers can lift unnecessary regulatory burdens that will help South Carolina grow its solar output.
The first order of business should be lifting a self-imposed cap on the amount of electricity that can be sold back into the state grid. Eliminating the 2 percent cap on “net metering” would give homeowners full credit for the electricity they generate.
Duke Energy is on pace to hit that mark in mid-March, and Dominion Energy, formerly SCE&G, is nearing the limit — an arbitrary one set by the Legislature at the behest of utilities several years ago. And though the House voted to lift the cap last year, the Senate failed to follow suit because of some last-minute legislative maneuvering.
Eliminating the cap, which was never meant to be permanent, would benefit homeowners and companies that install rooftop solar systems.
Passing the Energy Freedom Act by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, also would open up the grid to commercial solar producers, a concept embraced in federal law that requires utilities to buy solar-generated electricity from independent producers if they can deliver it at a lower cost than what it would cost the utility to produce. That would inject competition into South Carolina’s regulated monopoly utility system.
Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, has filed a companion bill in the House.
At a Jan. 10 rally at the Statehouse, part of a 100-day campaign sponsored by the solar industry, Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, co-chairman of the S.C. Energy Caucus, declared that “the day of utilities deciding our energy policy are over.”
The campaign also has the backing of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Solar Business Alliance. A recent poll conducted for the national nonprofit Vote Solar found that 64 percent of South Carolina registered voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports expanding access to clean energy and that 86 percent supported the idea of net metering.
Aside from residential reforms, The Solar Energy Industries Association wants big electricity users to be able to negotiate contracts directly with renewable energy suppliers while fairly compensating utilities for transmitting the power. Under such an arrangement, purchasers of large blocs of renewable energy would be eligible for wholesale rates, and utilities would be required to buy or distribute solar energy at rates close to their own costs.
Though solar energy production in South Carolina went from almost nonexistent in 2014 to enough to power about 100,000 homes last year, there’s still plenty of room for expansion.
South Carolina has been slow on the solar uptake. Only about 67,000 homes have rooftop installations, compared to 534,000 in North Carolina, which has twice as many residents but nearly eight times as many installations.
The cost of solar panels continues to decline. And tariffs on imported solar cells, meant to boost domestic production, are scheduled to decline 5 percent per year until phased out.
State lawmakers should lift the caps on residential solar and require utilities to buy and transmit electricity from renewable producers. Then let the markets do the rest.