Santee Cooper casts dark shadow on solar

Sixteen of the 48 solar panels on the roof of Blair Hahn's Isle of Palms beachside home. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

In 2009, we cheered Santee Cooper’s decision to abandon plans to build a new coal-burning plant on the Great Pee Dee River south of Florence.

Since then, the shift from dirty coal to cleaner and more economic energy generation has proven the wisdom of that decision for the environment, for consumers and for investors.

You may not realize it, but whether or not you are a Santee Cooper customer, you are an investor because Santee Cooper is a publicly owned utility.

Recent closures of older coal-burning plants and conversions of others to natural gas have changed the current generation mix in our state to roughly 20 percent natural gas, 30 percent coal and 50 percent nuclear.

Solar power is just a fraction of the mix, but last year’s historic legislative compromise between power companies, conservationists and solar entrepreneurs has now removed legal barriers to tapping our state’s solar potential.

Now, fair settlements approved by the Public Service Commission to implement the law are leading to the expansion of rooftop solar for customers of SCE&G and Duke. South Carolina has the tenth best solar resource in the nation, and we are eager to use it.

Except for Santee Cooper territory. While the investor-owned utilities are moving ahead, South Carolina’s state-owned utility is considering a combination of punitive solar charges and complicated incentives that would compromise its customer’s ability to produce their own energy from the sun.

Notably, Santee Cooper is not regulated like other utilities. Instead of being accountable to the state Public Service Commission, Santee Cooper is governed by a board appointed by the governor.

Why would a state agency like Santee Cooper adopt policies that limit the use of home-grown solar power when our General Assembly passed a law clearing the way for Duke and SCE&G customers to go solar?

Santee Cooper has said that its proposal was intended to help solar, but the math speaks for itself. The proposed charges will make payback periods unreasonably long for anyone considering a solar investment — even with confusing subsidies thrown in.

Santee Cooper should go back to the drawing board and take advantage of best practices that are now in place for other utility customers across our state.

The board should reject the solar charges proposed at its next meeting on Dec. 7.

Now is an important time for clean energy in South Carolina.

For almost two years, stakeholders, including Conservation Voters of South Carolina, have been discussing the options available for the state to meet new clean power targets needed to help us combat global warming.

The good news is that South Carolina is well on its way to reducing carbon from our energy sector and we are better positioned than most states going forward.

The other good news is that South Carolinians have gotten this far working together on clean energy that is cost-effective and important for creating jobs and recruiting industry.

Now we need to focus on clean energy tools like efficiency and solar that will help ratepayers in South Carolina keep their bills low.

We look forward to working with all parties to reach that result. South Carolina has a tremendous amount to lose from inaction on climate change. Our coast, our mountains, our farmers, our way of life — all stand to lose if extreme weather becomes the new normal.

Doing our part in the Palmetto State is important for our future. Cost-saving solar and energy efficiency are the path forward now.

Ann Timberlake is executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina. She can be reached at ann@cvsc.org.