COLUMBIA — After flying through the S.C. House with little difficulty, a bill that solar developers say is critical to continuing the industry's growth in the sunny Palmetto State has dramatically slowed down in the Senate with little sign that agreement will be reached soon.
An impasse over more technical issues that threatens to limit the clean energy source that swiftly expanded in South Carolina in recent years with earlier legislation. But caps that benefits solar user placed in that 2014 law are now being reached.
At issue is whether the Legislature should set a minimum for fixed-price contracts that large-scale solar projects sign with the state's utilities.
Solar developers say that any agreements lasting less than 10 years make it impossible for them to secure the financing required to build the multimillion-dollar projects. Utilities, including Duke Energy, argue that the longer fixed-price contracts could lead to risking higher costs for ratepayers.
After several weeks of subcommittee hearings that resulted in minimal progress, lawmakers finally voted to advance the bill to the full Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. But the disagreements have not been resolved, meaning the debates are likely to continue on the bigger stage.
Disputes around rooftop solar "net metering" — a program that allows solar users to sell back excess energy to the power grid — have largely been worked out. But with rooftop and large-scale solar lumped together in the bill, their legislative fates are linked.
Some lawmakers have proposed splitting the two issues, which would allow solar users continue to make money from selling excess power. Splitting the bill has received little traction from solar proponents, who say now is the time to address problems facing the entire industry.
"Any time you're attempting to disrupt the status quo to correct something that is fundamentally flawed, there are limited windows of time that you can make those changes," said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a solar supporter. "The public is engaged right now and you can't forfeit these opportunities when they arise."
The bill has already missed a deadline of March 15 when Duke Energy's Upstate subsidiary hit a cap on the number of applications to sell back electricity.
As a result, rooftop solar company Sunrun has already exited Duke Energy Carolinas territory that includes Greenville and Rock Hill, shifting employees to other parts of South Carolina or out of the state entirely.
"It’s hard to make a business plan when you’re living five months at a time," said Tyson Grinstead, Sunrun's South Carolina public policy manager.
In the meantime, solar advocates are ramping up pressure to get a comprehensive bill finished, planning a rally Tuesday at the Statehouse with solar workers and clean energy advocates.
State Sen. Wes Climer, R-Rock Hill, says he supports energy competition but has been unconvinced by the arguments that the solar efforts will benefit ratepayers in the long run.
"It could very easily result in consumers paying substantially more for power than they would have without these contracts," Climer said. "No one can predict the future. ... So if we're going to establish policy that will be in place for a long time, there have to be provisions to protect consumers if it ends up working out differently."
At the urging of House leaders who were unsettled by a heated floor fight on the issue last year, legislators there worked cooperatively to reach a compromise. But the Senate has lived up to its reputation as the more "deliberative" body, fixing language in the legislation and haggling for far longer on the details.
The slowdown has frustrated solar supporters in the House who pin much of the blame on Charlotte-based Duke Energy for not accepting what they view as a reasonable compromise.
Adding to the confusion, a mysterious new website called "SC Clean Energy for All" has popped up urging constituents to contact lawmakers. The site, which has been running ads on Twitter and Facebook, mirrors Duke's views on the bill but features no identification about who is behind it.
“They have been the one player in this process that has made consensus difficult," said state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, who championed the bill in the House. "This issue’s not going away."
Duke did not respond to requests for comment.