South Carolinians interested in using solar energy to save money on their power bills suffered a setback Wednesday when Duke Energy said it had reached a state limit on solar energy expansion in western South Carolina.
Reaching the limit means favorable rates for new solar customers likely won’t be available after July 31. Anyone who installs solar panels on their roofs after that date likely would not be paid the same amount for power they produce as existing Duke solar customers receive..
Those favorable rates help customers afford the cost of installing solar panels by lowering their monthly power bills.
Wednesday’s announcement, made by Duke in an email to solar companies, marks the first of what is expected to be similar announcements by utilities in other parts of South Carolina later this year. SCE&G and Duke Energy’s Progress division are expected to reach the solar expansion limit and no longer offer the solar rates now required by law.
At issue is a program known as “net-metering,” which in South Carolina requires utilities to pay or credit solar customers the same amount for power they produce as customers pay the utility for energy they get from it. Most people who have installed solar panels use a mix of energy they generate themselves during the day and energy the power company produces at night. The power company credits homeowners for excess energy produced by solar panels.
This past spring, Duke lobbied the S.C. Legislature not to force it to keep providing the favorable rates through net-metering. After heavy lobbying by Duke and SCE&G, the Legislature refused to eliminate or raise the limit beyond the existing 2 percent cap so that new solar customers could get better rates for solar power they sell the utilities.
Duke’s western S.C. service territory stretches from the Rock Hill area to the Georgia border near Anderson. In a statement Wednesday night, the company said reaching the solar limits shows that sun power is taking off in South Carolina. The company says it will still buy power from customers who produce energy, but they will be reimbursed at a rate now paid to large-scale solar plants. Rooftop solar industry officials say the large scale rate is less favorable.
Solar industry representatives decried the loss of rates the company was required to provide under a 2014 renewable energy law.
Matt Moore, chairman of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition industry group, said jobs will be lost because Duke has reached its solar cap. For months, Moore and other solar industry officials have said the state’s growing solar industry would suffer if the cap was not raised to continue requiring paying the higher rates.
With less favorable rates, fewer people are expected to sign up for solar, costing installers and salespeople their jobs, industry officials say. Long-term solar panel financing is based, in part, on the rates that power companies give back to homeowners for excess power that they would generate.
“”It’s a sad day for energy choice in South Carolina,” Moore said in a statement. “Jobs will be lost in August. Those jobs will likely go to North Carolina, Florida and other states with predictable, pro-solar policies. ”
Tyson Grinstead, governmental affairs representative for the Sunrun solar company, said solar energy installers in Duke’s service area should begin to lose business by fall as existing work dries up and less work comes their way. Salespeople also will suffer because they will find it harder to sell rooftop solar systems that no longer would bring favorable rates for customers, he said.
Grinstead said Duke’s intense lobbying effort last spring circumvented the intent of lawmakers to raise or eliminate the cap on solar expansion. Last spring, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill eliminating the cap. But Duke lobbyists raised a legal point that derailed the legislation.
“The vast majority of legislators want to see this gap go, they want jobs and solar growth to stay in South Carolina,” Grinstead said. “For whatever reason, procedural hurdles have been put in place to where nothing has gotten passed.”
Solar energy is an emerging form of producing electricity across the country. It produces power at no cost for customers. It also doesn’t create pollutants that contribute to global warming, like coal and natural gas plants do. It also does not create toxic waste ,like nuclear plants.
Major arguments have erupted across the country over how much utilities should pay customers for excess energy they produce.