COLUMBIA — South Carolina's powerful utility companies snatched victory from the jaws of defeat Tuesday in the Statehouse, killing a hotly contested bill that would expand the rooftop solar industry at their expense.
In an unexpected twist after last week's preliminary vote, lawmakers who sponsored an alternative pro-utility bill used legislative rules to undermine the solar effort by forcing a two-thirds final vote, rather than a simple majority.
The move marked a dramatic change in fortunes for the utility companies, which have been battling a public-relations crisis since SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper abandoned two $9 billion nuclear reactors in Fairfield County last year.
The solar industry sought to harness public outrage over that incident into legislation that would have lifted an upcoming limit on rooftop solar power. Panel installers say that if the Legislature doesn't let more homeowners get credits for using rooftop solar panels, it could risk thousands of new jobs the industry has created in recent years.
State Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, pleaded with colleagues to listen to constituents back home, who he said had lost all trust in utilities after being forced to pay for partially built reactors.
"They have deceived, they have lied, they are not credible to the ratepayers of South Carolina," McCoy said. "But they are showing the people of South Carolina that they run this state. ... Why are we going to continue to reward them?"
The final tally for the solar legislation was 61 to 44 in favor — short of the 82 it needed for passage to move to the Senate.
"The utilities actually lost in this chamber — one time," said state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. "But after the weekend, the story is different."
SCANA and Duke Energy, the state's largest power providers, fought vociferously against the bill, arguing that it would force non-solar customers to subsidize homeowners with panels.
An amendment added to the measure sought to undercut that argument by forcing the utilities to eat the costs of the subsidy rather than passing it on to consumers. That would amount to about $1.2 million in additional costs for Duke Energy and $4.4 million for SCANA, according to regulatory filings. Several lawmakers on the House floor pointed out that the CEOs of each of those companies make significantly more money than that in annual total compensation.
Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said the Charlotte-based utility supports a "reasonable path forward" for solar energy and encourages interested parties to come together and reach a compromise.
"Let’s create common-sense legislation that is fair and balances the interests of all who call South Carolina home – solar providers, energy companies, and customers who use solar energy and those who do not," Mosier said.
But the result drew howls from solar advocates, who fear that time is running out.
"I can't believe the utility lobbyists that brought us the nuclear plant disaster are now trying to kill off 3,000 jobs in South Carolina's renewable energy sector," said James Koehler, vice president of energy markets and policy for Charleston-based Palmetto, a solar installer. "They will literally stop at nothing."
Koehler said the vote would likely affect the company's plans to expand in South Carolina.
Tyson Grinstead, director of public policy for Sunrun, said his solar company may also face a decision about exiting South Carolina if the cap is not raised.
"It is a slap in the face to both voters and solar workers across the state that, after passing the House 64-33, the solar jobs bill was killed by lawmakers doing the bidding of utilities before the Senate could even consider it," Grinstead said.