A solar-friendly bill received key approval in the South Carolina House on Wednesday, illustrating a chamber which has grown increasingly distrustful of power utilities in the year after a controversial nuclear project’s failure.
25 Republicans joined all but two of the House Democrats voting to support a bill which eliminates caps on residential solar power. 31 GOP members opposed the effort, instead favoring a separate bill backed by the utilities. The 64-33 vote sends the bill over to the Senate next week.
“The utilities are not for this bill,” lead sponsor State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said. “They are opposed to this. As a matter of fact, they are doing everything they can to fight my bill.”
Current state law sets a two percent limit on the amount of utility capacity which is subject to a process known as “net metering.” That process created by a 2014 law allows a homeowner to get credit on their power bill for energy contributed by their home solar panels. But Duke Energy is close to reaching that two percent cap, while South Carolina Electric and Gas expects to reach it next year.
Utilities are against the bill’s one-for-one match on credit generated by those home panels, saying it makes buying power from those homes more expensive than the rate they pay for larger solar farms.
Opponents also say it effectively subsidizes solar customers who do not pay for the power lines and other infrastructure they rely on at night or during cloudy days. “Somebody else is paying for that,” State Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, said.
However, many legislators were unsympathetic to the arguments of utilities in the aftermath of SCE&G’s failure to finish work on nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station last year. Many of the same lawmakers whose votes helped pass Thursday’s bill have previously said they believe the company and its allies misled them on a 2007 law which left customers on the hook for $5 billion spent on the project.
“Is it a good idea to let the utilities dictate energy policy in South Carolina?” State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, asked rhetorically. “And the answer is no.”
In an attempt to win over undecided legislators, Smith and other supporters agreed to add language which would prevent other ratepayers from subsidizing solar customers. However, the bill’s critics said that would likely mean shareholders would share the burden instead.
“I would imagine (stockholders) are people who are counting on that for their retirement,” State Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, said. “So we’re going to make them pay subsidies for someone who has solar. That’s just not right. It has an odor to it.”
The vote came after the House narrowly killed a separate net metering bill favored by the industry. That proposal would have only allowed solar users to get credits equivalent to the cost they “avoided” by not relying on the grid, rather than match each kilowatt-hour generated. It was killed for the year in a 61-39 vote.