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How a Statehouse breakdown threatens South Carolina's solar energy industry

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Workers install rooftop solar panels. Provided/File

COLUMBIA — After a heated debate over the future of rooftop solar power in South Carolina disintegrated this legislative session, lawmakers thought they had finally reached a temporary compromise to return next year answer to the overarching questions in the growing industry.

Then even that fell apart.

First, standalone legislation failed to move out of the House after pro-utility lawmakers found a loophole that forced the bill to clear a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority.

Then, state senators shot down a last-minute budget amendment to temporarily raise the 2 percent cap on "net metering" — a program that requires utilities to reimburse solar panel owners for the excess electricity they pump into the power grid.

The breakdown could have immediate consequences here. Already, one of the nation's biggest residential solar companies, Sunrun, said hundreds of industry workers will be forced to leave parts of the Upstate when one of Duke Energy's South Carolina subsidiaries reaches its limit in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, compared the situation to Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Every time solar advocates thought they had finally laid the groundwork for success, Lucy — in the form of pro-utility legislators — pulls the ball away.

"I'm very disappointed for our state," Ballentine said. "Again, it just sends a bad message that it still seems that the utilities have a stranglehold on energy policy in our state and we've got to change that. I thought this would be the year, if any year, it would get done."

The Office of Regulatory Staff, the state's utility watchdog agency, has now been tasked with overseeing continuing conversations to see if the sides can agree to a temporary fix and a long-term solution in the 2019 legislative session.

The utilities view the current rate that they are forced to reimburse solar users as an unfair subsidy on the backs of non-solar homeowners. Ryan Mosier, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said they are committed to finding "a reasonable path forward" that "balances the interests of all who call South Carolina home."

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Other utilities, including S.C. Electric & Gas and another Duke subsidiary, are not set to hit their limits until possibly next year. 

The failure led to plenty of finger-pointing over who was responsible.

A Duke Energy spokesman claimed on Twitter that the utility wanted to raise the cap, but there was "no cooperation coming from the other side." In response, solar advocates produced an email from a Duke policy director in March saying they needed to "hit the pause button" on the negotiations due to other issues taking up their time.

The debate could also play a role in the upcoming election for South Carolina governor.

State Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee, helped lead the push in the House to create more space for solar energy to expand in the state and criticized Republican Gov. Henry McMaster for not getting behind the effort. 

"The governor did nothing to the protect those jobs," said Smith, D-Columbia. "As governor, I would have thousands of jobs in the solar industry here and billions in investment, and that will help lower utility rates. What is being done thus far just preserves the status quo."

McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes, cited the governor's testimony in opposition to solar tariffs and efforts to open new solar farms in South Carolina as evidence that he supports the renewable energy source.

"Gov. McMaster voiced his support for the bill as it was debated in the House and he has supported it since, but Mr. Smith’s failure as a legislator to get the bill out of the House and onto the governor’s desk lies at the feet of nobody other than Mr. Smith himself," Symmes said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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