News | March 27, 2018

Solar power, energy efficiency rising as answer to S.C. nuke debacle

SELC’s clean energy advocacy in South Carolina is gaining public traction as South Carolina contemplates how it will deliver power to its citizens in the coming years.

Against the backdrop of a failed and half-finished nuclear power plant — and the $9 billion in debt the project racked up — lawmakers are debating bills that would actually limit solar power production in the Palmetto State and encourage the building of big gas plants. South Carolinans already have the highest electric bills in the country.

But in a pair of editorials, the Charleston Post and Courier opined against going down this wrong track.

In a March 21 editorial headlined, “Let rooftop solar continue to shine in S.C.,” the newspaper opposes bills that would restrict the reach and value of rooftop solar power.

The newspaper wrote:

South Carolina utility companies do not want you to install solar panels on your roof. It’s pretty obvious why. Not only do homeowners with solar panels buy less power, but they actually get compensated for the power they put back on the grid.

For homeowners like Jacqui McLeish, a single mother of a son serving in the Air Force, the panels on her roof have slashed her power bill 40 percent. She’s one of 11,000 homeowners taking advantage of solar energy.

Solar works for South Carolina

“That’s a no-brainer,” McLeish told SELC as part of a series of videos exploring the many ways solar works for South Carolina homeowners and installers.

To appease utilities years ago, South Carolina lawmakers put a cap on the number of rooftop solar installations in the state. One bill, H.4421, seeks to repeal that cap, and the Post and Courier says that would be the right move.

The state Legislature needs to lift the cap on rooftop solar and create as friendly of an environment as possible for its expansion in South Carolina. We get a lot of sunshine here. We ought to put it to good use.

A similar, utility-backed bill also in the House seeks to repeal the cap as well, but slashes the value of the power generated by a home’s panels.

On a sunny day, for example, a homeowner might generate surplus electricity which is sent back to the grid to power other properties. The homeowner gets a credit for this power on his bill.

On a cloudy day, that same homeowner might need to draw power from the utility. He essentially buys and sells power at the same price. That’s called “net metering.”

But the bill that rankled the Post and Courier aims to give the utilities what they want: The ability to buy low and sell high. And that windfall for utilities diminishes the value of that solar power.

“Customers should come first. And solar power benefits customers,” the newspaper wrote.

And then in a separate editorial, the Post and Courier pointed out that the state’s utilities are racing to build bigger natural gas plants to meet what they claim is a growing demand, but a simple effort to save electricity through energy-efficiency programs would be a smarter course.

“Of course, SCE&G wants to build a new plant. That’s how the utility makes money,” the editorial board wrote. “State regulators allow a roughly 10 percent return on investment, so the more SCE&G spends, the greater dollar amount investors earn — and the more ratepayers pay.”

The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t have to produce,” said Blan Holman, Managing Attorney in SELC’s Charleston office. “A robust energy efficiency program not only saves customers cash, but it saves utilities from sinking more and more money into fossil fuel plants.

When utilities want to build more moneymaking power plants, they base their forecast for energy demand on historical data. And that almost always leads to a padded prediction, Holman said.

They’re not taking into account what we already know,” Holman said. “Our newer refrigerators use less energy. Our washers and dryers are more efficient. So are the rest of our modern appliances. But utilities typically don’t account for that when making their forecasts. When they guess high, they get to build another power plant and make more money for shareholders. And the customer is on the hook for the unnecessary costs.

One bill that the Post and Courier backs would require utilities by “to factor in improvements to the energy efficiency in their demand forecasts and invest more in efficiency upgrades.”

Across South Carolina, solar has boomed in the past four years, Holman said. And paired with a good energy efficiency program, customers of all incomes and businesses of all sizes would save serious money.

It would be a mistake to stymie that progress now,” Holman said. “The best way to keep money in constituents’ pockets is by lowering their bills through efficiency upgrades and cheap solar power.