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Workers install rooftop solar panels. File/Provided

COLUMBIA — After falling just short in the 11th hour last legislative session, clean energy advocates are renewing their push to ease restrictions in South Carolina on how much energy rooftop solar customers can sell back to the power grid and for how much credit. 

As lawmakers enter what is expected to be a busy legislative year filled with a bevy of complicated issues, supporters of expanding solar access know they will need to coordinate an early and sustained drive if their topic is to have any chance of emerging to the surface.

Last week, a coalition of solar industry and conservation groups launched a 100-day "clean energy agenda" to urge lawmakers to swiftly address the issue, including eliminating a cap on net metering — a program that ensures customers are given a credit for their extra power that’s equal to what they typically pay. 

If they don't, a Duke Energy subsidiary could hit the cap in March, and South Carolina Electric & Gas could follow soon after. Solar installers fear that could lead to thousands of energy job losses as companies move to states with more favorable regulations.

"It's not like people can say, 'We didn't see it coming,' like they did with V.C. Summer," said John Tynan, the executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, referring to the abrupt 2017 cancellation of a massive nuclear project. "This is one that's been choreographed, that's been predicted, that they know is out there."

The groups also want to end a practice that allows utilities to charge non-solar customers for lost revenue from those who install solar panels, thereby diminishing complaints that the industry is being subsidized.

But they already face an early roadblock: S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, is referring solar legislation to the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee that has historically favored the state's utilities instead of pursuing new energy options.

Solar supporters in the House said they have been promised by Lucas that the solar bill will reach the floor for a vote, but they fear what the proposal will look like once it arrives there.

An increased sense of urgency, Tynan and other renewable energy supporters said, has drawn more interest groups into the fight this year, reinforcements that they believe will help.

"Anytime you want to move legislation or new ideas, it helps to not only have information for people who don't understand the issue but also to bring in groups that are supportive or want to offer suggestions about how to make the bill better," said House Judiciary Chairman Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who is one of solar's biggest Statehouse supporters. "Raising awareness and having more people talk about it is critical."

The latest effort comes as new statewide polling commissioned by Vote Solar, a national pro-solar non-profit, suggests public support for energy alternatives is on the rise.

The poll of 400 registered South Carolina voters, conducted by Benchmark Research with a 4.46 percent margin of error, found that 64 percent are more likely to vote for "a candidate who supports expanding access to clean energy choices like rooftop solar," while 86 percent support the concept of net metering.

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The state's large utilities say they are just as interested in reaching a more sustainable solution this year.

The Office of Regulatory Staff, the state's utility watchdog, managed a collaborative process after last year's session. That led to a 127-page report highlighting the areas of contention between the two.

"We think the back and forth of these frank conversations were informative for all involved," said Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier, adding that they support some of the agenda items from solar installers, such as removing the net metering cap, even if they disagree on key technical aspects, such as rates.

The issue has some bipartisan appeal. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said Democrats have long backed renewable energy and view it as a critical concern. Over in the Senate, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has taken charge on the issue.

"There's no reason whatsoever to have a cap on the amount of excess power that rooftops can put back onto the grid, and of course it has to be priced competitively," Davis said. "The lesson from last year is that our way of approaching power generation in South Carolina is broken."

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, another solar industry proponent, said he's confident they will get it done this year. 

"Nothing ever comes easy in politics," said Ballentine, R-Chapin. "But it's a marathon, not a sprint. I think last year got it on a lot of people's radars that it wasn't before, so hopefully my colleagues spent some time over the break learning about the issue and educating themselves. Those jobs are still in jeopardy."

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.