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Solar panels are installed on the roof of a home in Ladson last year. South Carolina is in the middle of a boom in solar power, but the industry says its growth will be cut off if the Legislature doesn't remove caps on solar generation. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's growing rooftop solar industry scored a major victory Thursday, winning key approval for a bill they say will increase the emphasis on renewable energy and save thousands of jobs.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives passed legislation eliminating caps on residential solar power in the state. The measure extends incentives that advocates say make rooftop panels an affordable prospect for homeowners in a state that's faced soaring electricity rates.

The 64-33 vote concluded a months-long feud over the future of rooftop solar power and shifted the issue to the Senate where the battle is expected to be no less contentious.

Installers fear that failing to lift a cap on the credits homeowners get for using rooftop solar panels would risk thousands of new jobs that have come to the the state in recent years.

The program, known as "net metering," allows homeowners with solar panels to sell excess energy back to the utilities at the same rate they pay for power.

Utilities contend ratepayers are being forced to subsidize an industry that has already gotten off the ground and mostly benefits wealthy residents.

To undercut that argument, solar proponents changed their bill to prevent the utilities from raising customer rates to pay for the subsidy, instead forcing the companies to eat the costs.

According to regulatory filings, that solar cost in 2017 was $4.4 million for South Carolina Electric & Gas and $1.2 million for Duke Energy. 

Lingering anger over the state's $9 billion nuclear debacle helped push the measure over the edge, as solar advocates repeatedly pointed out that those lawmakers trying to subvert the effort were the same legislators who pushed the 2007 law that shifted construction risks onto ratepayers.

"I've been here for 13 years, and a lot of the times the little guy doesn't win," state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said.

"It speaks volumes that everybody is listening the constituents back home," he added. "I think we're learning lessons and it shows utilities don't rule the roost around here."

State Rep. Bill Sandifer, the Oconee Republican who introduced a separate utility-backed bill that failed, declined to comment while leaving the Statehouse.

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Ryan Mosier, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said the Charlotte-based utility is disappointed in the vote.

"As was discussed throughout the debate, this bill continues to subsidize the solar industry and is bad for customers," Mosier said.

One of Duke Energy's two South Carolina subsidiaries is expected to hit the 2-percent solar cap within a few months unless it is raised or eliminated. SCE&G has forecast that its limit will be hit in early 2019.

The pro-business South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which has wielded significant influence in the Legislature this session, sent a note to lawmakers this week saying they opposed both bills and wanted to form a study committee to reach a compromise. 

But solar advocates like state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, panned that last-minute entreaty as an attempt to "kick the can down the road."

"We're no longer competitive in being able to attract industry because we have some of the highest (electricity) rates in the country," Smith said during an hours-long debate on the House floor. "We've got to change that. This bill will do it."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.