The US Department of Energy’s latest data show that South Carolina residential customers pay the second highest average electric bills in the country, behind only Hawaii, where residential rates are 37 cents per kWh.
Many other Southeastern states are in the top ten nationally for highest electric bills. This may come as a surprise to some, given conventional wisdom that the Southeast has low electric rates. In South Carolina, our residential rates are not particularly low (20th highest), and we consume lots of electricity (6th highest average monthly use).
Our hot, muggy summer season and relatively high prevalence of electric space and water heating are part of why we consume so much. Historic underinvestment in energy efficiency measures is another key factor, and one we should work aggressively to change. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranks South Carolina 40th in the nation for policies and programs aimed at promoting energy efficiency.
Investing in efficiency measures is a relief valve for individual families because the electric bill savings can more than pay for the upfront cost over time. With financing, families can also realize net bill savings from day one with no upfront payment. Efficiency also makes sense from a utility system level, because utilities can market efficiency measures and offer incentives to customers at a lower per-kWh cost than building and operating power plants and other grid infrastructure.
Further, an aggressive program of efficiency improvement would reduce the power sector’s environmental impacts, and create thousands of jobs retrofitting homes, apartments, and commercial buildings.
South Carolina has numerous policies in place that have kickstarted efficiency efforts across the state. Updated building energy codes for new buildings, state government lead by example, ratepayer-funded utility rebate programs, and electric cooperative on-bill financing programs have all helped our state begin to tap the many benefits of energy efficiency. This is an excellent start, but we need to do much more. Our efficiency gains have plateaued at a level that is leaving significant potential untapped.
In 2014, South Carolina passed legislation that has ushered in rapid growth in renewable energy markets. Citizens and lawmakers asked, why do South Carolinians not have access to financing products for distributed energy resources like solar? Why are North Carolina and Georgia attracting investment and creating jobs by installing solar farms, yet with just as much sun, South Carolina is not? A coalition of utilities, cooperatives, conservation groups, businesses, and community leaders worked together to forge policy and regulations to address these gaps, and now South Carolina is taking advantage of our abundant sunshine, reducing pollution, giving customers new choices, and growing new industries.
We can expand these achievements by continuing to work together to take energy efficiency to the next level. New financing options for efficiency upgrades, further updated building codes, building energy use disclosure, and expanded utility efficiency programs are just a few examples of how we can move the ball forward on efficiency in South Carolina.
Our State Energy Office is currently leading a first-time effort in South Carolina to create a State Energy Plan. The statute requiring the plan lays out goals such as minimizing the economic and environmental cost of energy, meeting the needs of low-income communities, and promoting economic development. Energy efficiency is uniquely positioned to serve all of these purposes, and should be a major policy priority for South Carolina.
Kenneth Sercy is a Utility Regulation Specialist at the Coastal Conservation League in Columbia, South Carolina.