It would be easier for South Carolinians to install solar panels on their property under legislation that’s up for debate in the state Senate this week.
The House voted unanimously last week to approve a bill that would allow third-party companies to lease their solar panels to customers in South Carolina. The practice is meant as a way to help homeowners afford the relatively expensive panels without being regulated as a utility. Supporters say it will provide a new option in a state where residential solar panels are practically nonexistent.
“As our electricity rates have gone up and the costs of solar have come down, it’s an attractive proposition for a lot of people and a lot of businesses,” Coastal Conservation League energy director Hamilton Davis told South Carolina Radio Network. “But you’ve got to have your policies right. And South Carolina’s now addressing a number of those policies.”
The legislation will also require participating utilities to devote at least two percent of their peak generating capacity to renewable energy, including solar, by 2021.
Alternative energy groups have spent two years pushing for the incentives and that they say will expand the use of solar energy in South Carolina. But their efforts previously hit a snag on the issue of “net metering.” In essence, net metering allows customers who use solar panels to then return some of their excess energy to the grid. In theory, those customers would then be able to claim credits in other months when they rely on the grid for power.
But utilities have been uncomfortable with the idea, saying they still need those customers to pay the costs of operating the grid. Lawmakers have been sympathetic to their arguments.
“(Customers) are still going to be relying on the grid during the time which the sun’s not shining,” the bill’s sponsor Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, told South Carolina Radio Network. “Which is half the day on average. They’ve got to go back on the grid at nighttime.”
However, lawmakers decided to let the state Public Service Commission decide the net energy metering rate. Which means it will likely be at least another year before customers would be able to use the program.
Gregory was not sure if senators would agree to the compromise or would create a conference committee with the House to negotiate any differences. He said he expects Gov. Nikki Haley to approve the current version. “It looks bad for us to just have a sliver of the solar power generating capacity as our neighboring states,” he said. “And I think this bill certainly starts us on the road to just catching up.”
Davis said the changes, if approved, would likely bring South Carolina closer into line with other East Coast states.
“This allows us to catch up,” he said. “It’s not going to put us on par with North Carolina, but it gets us closer to Georgia in terms of the percentage of our power that would be coming from solar.”