Credit: Pieter Morlion / Creative Commons

The head of a new South Carolina conservative solar coalition talks to Southeast Energy News about the politics of solar, from net-metering to Trump’s tariffs.

South Carolina’s solar industry took off after then-Gov. Nikki Haley in 2014 signed Act 236, a broad law that rewrote the rules for how utilities in the state interact with solar.

Four years later, companies trying to continue that growth face several challenges.

A cap on how many customers can participate in utilities’ net-metering programs threatens to stop the industry’s momentum in its tracks. Net-metered installations can’t exceed 2 percent of a utility’s peak capacity.

Solar advocates are lobbying to increase or eliminate the net-metering cap, but they’re vying for attention from lawmakers as the state grapples with a crisis posed by the failed construction of two reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear plant. Further complicating the outlook are price-sensitive customers having second thoughts about solar after President Donald Trump imposed a tariff on imported solar cells and panels.

In response, Sunrun and other solar companies have created the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition and put the former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, Matt Moore, in charge. Southeast Energy News recently spoke with Moore about his new position.

What is it about solar that appeals to conservatives in South Carolina?

I think solar energy is conservative. It creates choice by giving people the right to produce their own power instead of having to buy from monopolies.

How is the coalition working to extend the industry’s dramatic growth?

House Bill 4421 lifts the net metering cap above 2 percent. Secondly, it makes rooftop solar available to all South Carolinians (removing the Act 236 exemption for Santee Cooper from the state’s net metering goals). Thirdly, it creates an accounting mechanism for solar by improving the reporting requirements on electric bills. It also creates a renewable energy property tax exemption… Right now, no counties or municipalities are punishing solar adopters, but the potential exits. The new bill would prevent any such abuse such as assessing a property tax on homeowners for making the choice to go solar.

What are the next steps for lawmakers to act on House Bill 4421? How about in the Senate after legislation (if it passes) crosses over in April?

There is wide agreement in the House that the time is right to move forward on solar. That bill was pre-filed in November and sits in the Judiciary Committee. It has a number of excellent sponsors from across the state. We hope the House gives it a full hearing.

Duke Energy Carolinas has said their 2 percent cap could be hit in the second quarter of this year. In many ways, that’s the date that matters most. The legislature has to act now with House Bill 4421 (and the Senate by May) to keep solar momentum in place in the Palmetto State.

What would lifting the cap altogether would mean for South Carolina’s economy?

When Act 236 was passed it paved the way for solar energy in South Carolina. In just a few years, thousands of jobs were created and dozens of solar companies opened up shop. These are good-quality, local jobs that can’t be automated or exported. Lifting the cap with House Bill 4421, the Energy Consumer Bill of Rights Act, will continue this economic growth and help more South Carolinians find good work across the state.

What happens if the 2 percent cap is not increased?

The 2 percent caps on net metering are a cliff for the solar industry. What’s happening in South Carolina is very similar to the scenario that took place in Nevada only a few years ago. State policymakers didn’t have a plan in place for when the net metering caps were hit. Virtually overnight companies were forced to leave the state and close their doors, leaving hundreds of workers looking for work in other states or without jobs.

South Carolina is poised to follow in Nevada’s footsteps if the caps aren’t lifted. South Carolina has almost 3,000 solar jobs that are at risk right now. We can’t afford to lose 3,000 more energy jobs on top of the 5,000 lost from V.C. Summer. Luckily, many leaders are listening to solar workers who are asking for action with House Bill 4421.

How does solar help address the failure of South Carolina’s utilities to build two reactors on time and on budget?

Right now, the average SCE&G (South Carolina Electric & Gas) customer pays more than $25 every month because of VC Summer. There is no question that South Carolinians from all walks of life are turning to rooftop solar as the solution to take back control over their power bills. It’s also worth noting that Act 236 paved the way for citizens and solar companies to join together in using private investment to build the state a power plant distributed across rooftops. As we look to the future of energy in South Carolina, private investment and customer choice should be a major focus.

From the perspective of a former state GOP chairman, how do you see the first year of Trump’s presidency affecting the push for solar in South Carolina?

Energy policy is largely decided at the state level. That’s why House Bill 4421 is so incredibly important here in South Carolina. It will be especially important in the wake of the short-sighted decision to impose tariffs on solar panels and washing machines parts, which will directly impact jobs in our state.

Now is the time for South Carolina to step up and take action to protect the existing solar jobs and bring critical energy choice with solar… We appreciate the president looking out for American workers, but American workers already are winning with solar in South Carolina.

There are a handful of in-state organizations advocating for solar and clean energy in South Carolina. These include the South Carolina Solar Council and the South Carolina Solar Business Alliance. How, if at all, do you work together??

All of them share them share the same goal of more access to solar for consumers. The PCSC (Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition) is made up of many national and state companies, former and current legislators and conservative advocates like myself. We’re working hand in hand breaking down regulatory barriers and increasing usage.

How do you think an acquisition of SCANA / SCG&E by Dominion Energy would affect the solar industry?

South Carolina needs utilities that will do what’s in the best interest of the ratepayers, not company shareholders. Better to ask Dominion if they want to work with or against solar because South Carolina consumers have already made it clear that they want more energy choices.

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.