Simply lifting the state’s self-imposed cap on solar energy production — arbitrarily set at 2 percent of a utility’s peak output — must be a legislative priority this year. It would save jobs, enable more homeowners to invest in rooftop top installations and, over the long run, help wean utilities off fossil fuels.
The Legislature should have lifted the cap last year. Now, the solar industry in South Carolina is poised to hit a wall by this spring unless lawmakers pass legislation to unfetter clean, renewable and homegrown electricity production. Lawmakers should act before that happens.
Bills by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, would do just that. They would also hopefully expand solar options for big electricity consumers, such as manufacturers, and help pave the way for additional large-scale solar farms.
The Public Service Commission will be charged with promulgating some of the more technical rules for utility-scale solar farms and big commercial electricity users.
But if the cap isn’t lifted, utilities would no longer be obligated to fully credit homeowners for the solar electricity they produce, a practice known as “net metering.” Failure to act also could put the kibosh on Duke Energy’s shared solar subscription program that enables Upstate residents to reduce their electricity bills by about $200 per year.
Thankfully, Mr. McCoy’s House bill could come to a floor vote as early as next week. It deserves bipartisan support, as does Sen. Davis’ bill, which includes provisions for opening the electrical grid to commercial solar producers, thereby injecting competition into what is now a regulated monopoly system.
The legislation is also backed broadly by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, the Coastal Conservation League, the Audubon Society and the S.C. Solar Business Alliance.
South Carolinians clearly are in favor of solar power. A recent poll found 64 percent of likely voters would vote for a candidate who supports expanding access to clean energy like rooftop solar, and 86 percent support net metering.
Solar energy started to take off in South Carolina in 2015, expanding from a mere 5 megawatts to 470 megawatts by last summer — a remarkable growth rate. In the process, about 3,000 jobs were created for rooftop solar installers, and “utility scale” solar farms started cropping up.
Despite explosive growth in recent years, solar energy still has plenty of room to grow in South Carolina, which gets less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar sources. North Carolina, by comparison, gets more than 5 percent.
Lifting the cap on solar production is a straightforward way to encourage rooftop solar and keep installation companies from decamping to states with friendlier regulations. Other parts of the bills are more complicated concerning subsidies utilities receive to compensate them for “lost opportunities,” commercial solar farms and incentives for big energy users. But lawmakers shouldn’t let that stand in the way of doing what’s most urgent first.
Market forces should point legislators in the right direction once the cap is lifted.