South Carolina is one of the sunnier places in the country, yet thanks to skeptical lawmakers, lobbyists, electric power utilities and inertia, the state lags far behind when it comes to capitalizing on this natural resource.
Take tiny New Hampshire. It gets much less sunshine than South Carolina, but it has installed six times more solar power capacity than the Palmetto State, according to federal figures. Snowy Michigan? It has 11 times more installed solar energy production capacity.
When it comes to jobs, some states have a thriving solar industry: North Carolina’s budding solar industry has produced 1,400 Jobs, according to a census by the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit solar research group. Tennessee has 2,300 solar jobs. South Carolina has just 320.
Ten years ago, solar power was an extraordinarily expensive way to generate electricity. But because of new technological advances and increased manufacturing efficiency, the price of installing and generating solar power has dropped like hailstones in a thunderstorm. Solar panel prices have decreased 60 percent in two years, according to a recent report by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Officials with South Carolina Electric Gas and Santee Cooper, two of South Carolina’s largest energy producers, say that despite advances, solar energy is still not a power source they can rely on at all times because solar produces electricity only when the sun is out.
The utilities also worry that if too many homeowners put solar power panels on their roofs electricity rates might skyrocket for those who don’t have panels.
In some states companies are allowed to install solar panels on a property owner’s roof and sell the juice back to utilities, splitting the proceeds and lowering the property owner’s bill. Sometimes called “third-party leasing,” this model is similar to how cell phone companies put expensive smartphones in people’s hands for free. South Carolinians don’t have that option, largely because of reluctant state lawmakers.
Legislation to change this went down in flames this year, as did other incentives to encourage the development of solar energy.
Here’s a look at state legislators who have worked like clouds to block solar power and those who have tried to make South Carolina a sunnier place.
Here are the key lawmakers in the legislative battle over how much solar energy will be in South Carolina’s future. The Post and Courier has classified them here based on who’s blocking pro-solar bills and who’s promoting solar energy legislation. Those blocking are classified as “Cloudy.” Those who are supporting the blockers are listed as “Partially Cloudy.” And those actively pushing solar energy legislation are called “Sunny.”
Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek
Retired regional president of Alcoa; Airports Director of the Charleston County Aviation Authority
Member of the Senate Finance, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Corrections and Penology, General and Transportation committees.
Member of the Energy Advisory Council
Campbell is no newcomer to energy issues, at least when it comes to traditional energy production such as coal and nuclear.
Campbell was a top executive at Alcoa’s aluminum plant in Berkeley County, which requires vast amounts of electricity, and he was a board member of Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company that has massive investments in nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
As a member of the state’s Energy Advisory Council he plays a major role in its research into the pros and cons of solar power laws. The council’s work likely will help craft or kill future solar legislation.
Campbell favors making it easier for companies to set up solar panels and lease them back to property owners. “I know that utilities are somewhat against that, but I think we have to do it.”
However, he thinks wind power has a better future than solar and the Legislature needs to ensure that “utilities are comfortable” with future solar-related legislation.
Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence
Physical therapist and developer
Second vice chairman of the House Labor, Commerce Industry Committee
Lowe’s Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee was this year’s cemetery for a House bill to allow companies to set up solar panel arrays and sell electricity back to utilities.
Lowe is against tax credits for solar power and calls incentives that have worked in Germany and other states an example of socialism. He acknowledged that tax credits have been used to encourage development of other industries but said solar tax credits hurt taxpayers and make power more expensive for utility customers. He said he’s concerned that solar leasing companies could make it more difficult for homeowners to sell properties or fix their roofs.
He’s in favor of solar power in a general way. “Everyone is pulling for it. We all want it to work.” But he said the state’s high humidity may hurt solar panel efficiency.
“Right now, it’s so far away from being financially feasible. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to go out and provide energy to people.”
Rep. W. Brian White, R-Anderson
Insurance agent with Capstone Insurance Services
Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee
Member of the State Budget and Control Board
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, White has the power to send legislation to subcommittees where they can die quiet deaths, or just let a bill languish in the full committee.
During the last legislative session his committee bottled up two bills, one sponsored by a Republican legislator and the other by a Democrat, to provide solar power tax credits.
White said he does not see much demand for solar power because electricity remains “kind of cheap in South Carolina.” And he doesn’t see the point in providing tax incentives for what remains a relatively expensive form of electricity.
“I’m sure as time goes solar will become more affordable.”
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston
Member of two House committees, Ethics and Ways and Means
Stavrinakis introduced a bill this year to provide sales tax exemptions for the purchase of machinery, tools and other equipment used in the production of renewable energy.
Stavrinakis’s bill to provide tax exemptions for renewable energy equipment is stuck in the Ways and Means Committee.
“The chairman of that committee is not interested in seeing that bill move forward,” he said. “If the chairman wants it to move, it will.”
Still, he said, he’s willing to wait.
Plenty of bills take multiple years to get through.”
Sen. Chauncey “Greg” Gregory, R-Lancaster
President of Builders Supply Company
Gregory is a member of five Senate committees: Agriculture and Natural Resources; Corrections and Penology; Fish, Game and Forestry; Judiciary; and Rules.
Gregory sponsored the House version of a law that would allow companies to install solar power systems on homes and lease them to the homeowner. The lease arrangement would let homeowners avoid the expensive up-front costs of buying and installing solar.
His bill is stuck in the Senate Finance Committee.
Gregory blamed political pressure from the utility companies for stalling solar energy bills. He said he understands some of the utilities’ concerns, but “this stuff has all been figured out in other states” where solar is now expanding. In South Carolina, “It’s delay, delay, delay.” He said he does not know why Finance Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Luke Rankin is holding up the bill. “You’d have to ask him.”
Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Inman
Owner of Krispy Kreme Doughnut Company in Spartanburg
Member of seven Senate committees: Finance, Banking and Insurance, Ethics, General, Invitations, Labor, Commerce and Industry and Rules
Reese was a main sponsor of a bill introduced earlier this year to provide a tax credit of 25 percent of the installation cost of solar energy systems.
He sits on two of the main Senate committees where solar legislation has stalled, Finance and Labor, Commerce and Industry.
Reese blames his bill’s failure to reach the Senate floor on senators who say the state can’t afford to give away any more money in tax incentives.
As a result, he said, the committee “continues to sit on it and sit on it. … I’m trying to be nice about it. I don’t want to make the Chairman mad. … It could hurt me in the future.” He was referring to Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Finance Committee chairman who wields a big stick when it comes to state financial matters.
Reese said “it’s a no-brainer” to use the free power the sun provides with no pollution. “We’re so stupid that we don’t put up solar panels, We’d rather dig holes” for oil, gas and coal. “We’re insane.”
Reese said the state’s public power utilities should get in the solar game instead of sticking with what they are doing and writing solar off as costly and unreliable.
“The power industry doesn’t want this competition” and the state’s lawmakers are going along with them.
Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville
Retired insurance agent
Vice Chairman of the House Rules Committee
Member of the House Ways and Means Committee
Loftis has sponsored two bills to extend tax credits for the costs of solar installation. One bill passed the House but is stalled in the Senate Finance Committee. The other is stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee. Loftis also is a sponsor of Rep. James Smith’s bill to allow companies to install solar systems on houses through lease agreements with the homeowners. That bill is stalled in the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. Loftis describes himself as “very pro-business,” but said the current monopoly system the state has for power providers hinders progress with solar and other reusable energy sources. Alternative power sources will happen — it’s just a matter of time, he said. “I’m conservative, but I am for these alternatives … for the benefit of the consumers.”
Loftis said tax incentives are necessary to help alternative energy businesses take hold. Asked if the bills he supports have stalled because of the committee chairmen, Loftis said, “Those are your words, not mine. I wouldn’t disagree with you.”
Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia
Senior Vice President of Keenan Suggs Insurance
President Pro Tempore of the Senate
Chairman of the Senate Education Committee
Member of four other Senate committees: Banking and Insurance, Ethics, Finance and Medical Affairs
As President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Courson occupies one of the most powerful positions in state government.
Courson has not taken an aggressive stance in pushing for laws to encourage more solar or renewable energy, But, he said, “I support the legislation that has been introduced” including the bill that would allow solar companies to install homeowners to lease solar systems. Courson said he has made the Senate aware that after the Energy Advisory Council report on renewable energy comes out in late December, he would be willing to be involved in resolving the issue.
Solar group thrives after moving to N.C.
Solar energy looked like a good bet in South Carolina during in the first decade of the 21st century as coal, gas and oil prices hit new highs.
Argand, a start-up provider of solar power systems, figured that the Carolinas, with all their sunshine and growth, offered good markets. The company set up offices in Columbia and Charlotte.
Over the decade the regulatory climate in South Carolina worsened for solar as state lawmakers and power companies bet on nuclear energy as the best way to beat high and volatile fossil fuel prices.
Lawmakers even adopted a unique law that allows the power companies to bill customers in advance for the high costs of constructing massive reactors.
In North Carolina lawmakers opened the door slightly for successful commercial solar power by offering a tax credit for installation and requiring power companies to buy as much as 20 megawatts of excess solar power from any single source, that’s enough to power about 3,000 homes.
Discouraged by South Carolina’s restrictions, Argand closed its Columbia office and consolidated to North Carolina where it has helped turn that state into the 11th-highest producer of solar energy per person in the nation.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens
Director of Safety for Alice Manufacturing Company in Easley
Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Member of three other Senate committees: Rules, Education and Banking and Insurance
Martin’s Judiciary Committee can make or break legislation. Last year, the Energy System Freedom of Ownership Act, which would have allowed third-party leasing of solar power units, died in a Judiciary subcommittee.
Martin is a cautious lawmaker who said, in principle, “we ought to do what we can to develop solar power and other forms of alternative energy.” He’s waiting for an Energy Advisory Council report to guide future solar legislation. “We want to give the partners in this big issue (utilities) the ability to weigh in.” He’s “optimistic” lawmakers will develop a plan to encourage more solar power during the next session. “We have to do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize a pretty reliable source of power. … We want to reduce as much dependency on traditional sources of power generation as we can, but it’s going to take time.”
Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia
First Vice Chairman House Judiciary Committee
Smith authored a bill this year that would significantly ease the cost burden for installing solar by allowing companies to lease solar systems to homeowners.
Smith’s bill is stuck in the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee. Smith says solar power “is a concept which is drawing billions of dollars in private investment because it makes sense.
Nevertheless, he said, South Carolina’s lawmakers continue to place barriers to its use in order to protect the state’s power utility monopolies.
He said he understands some of the concerns over solar leasing. Among those is fear that solar leasing companies would rob existing utilities of customers without having to pay for the use of the power grid. Those using solar power would generally need to state hooked to the grid as backup and to sell excess power to the utilities. “These are things that can be resolved.”
He characterized Rep. Bill Sandifer’s criticism of the solar leasing bill for lacking consumer protection as “baloney.” If that’s the concern, he said, then it’s easily remedied.
In the meantime, Smith said, South Carolina is a solar waste land because of restrictive, anti-solar regulations.
Rep. William “Bill” Sandifer, R-Seneca
Businessman, former owner and operator of Seneca Mortuary
Chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee
Vice chairman of the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee
Sandifer’s county is home to Duke Power’s Oconee Nuclear Station, one of the nation’s largest nuclear plants with a generating capacity of about 2.6 million kilowatts, enough electricity to power 1.9 million homes.
Sandifer’s House committee killed a bill this year that would have allowed solar energy companies to lease solar panels to homeowners and businesses.
The cost of installation for a fully solar average-size house has been prohibitive at an estimated $35,000 to $40,000. The lease law would have allowed many homeowners to install solar.
Sandifer said he’s not opposed to solar but felt the law lacked consumer protections from fly-by-night companies that might take the solar tax credits and leave. Homeowners who have to move might get stuck with the lease, he said.
In addition, he said, there’s no guarantee that the ultimate energy cost will be less when the lease costs are added up.
If consumers want to buy and own the solar systems, “I’m all for it,” he said. People might be able to take out home equity loans as a way to pay them over time, he said.
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence
Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee
Chairman of the Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee
Member of four other Senate committees: Ethics; Labor, Commerce and Industry; Rules; and Transportation
Member of the South Carolina Budget and Control Board
Mention the words “powerful state lawmaker,” and you’re likely to hear Leatherman’s name in the same breath. Leatherman is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and has his fingers on most important pieces of legislation.
His Senate Finance Committee has bottled-up two bills that would provide tax credits for installation of solar energy systems.
One of the two bills passed the House two years ago.
Leatherman did not return multiple phone calls over the past four weeks seeking comment about solar power issues and the actions of his Finance Committee.
Sponsors of the two bills blame Leatherman for the bills’ failure to get out of the Finance Committee. One of the two said Leatherman indicated that he is opposed to giving away any more tax incentives.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach
Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee
Member of the four other Senate committees: Finance, Judiciary, Transportation, Education and Banking and Insurance
Luke Rankin is a pivotal lawmaker when it comes to solar power issues. He’s a member of the Energy Advisory Council, a group that advises lawmakers on solar power issues. He’s also chairman of a judiciary subcommittee that oversees regulation of the state’s public utilities.
Under his leadership, the subcommittee last year sidelined the Energy System Freedom of Ownership Act, a bill to allow companies to lease solar arrays to property owners and sell electricity back to utilities, a process that has fueled the growth of solar power in other states.
Though it died in his subcommittee, “it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Rankin said, adding that he’s hopeful that solar legislation will get a full debate in January, especially as the Energy Advisory Council gathers more data on what works for ratepayers and utilities alike. “I think we all recognize the benefit of using less coal and using more ‘renewables,’ and I think there’s also a recognition that we should not do something to one group at the expense of another. … The question is how to make it fair to all parties.”
So far, solar power proponents have yet to make a solid case that incentives and third-party leasing will benefit everyone, he said. “The general concept is laudable … but you have to get everyone buying in and having some comfort level” before lawmakers give solar power laws a green light.
Sen. Thomas C. Alexander, R-Walhalla
Owner of Anderson Office Supply
Chairman Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee
Member of four other Senate committees: Banking and Insurance; Finance; Invitations; and Medical Affairs
Chairman of the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee
Alexander wields considerable power over any proposed law relating to the state’s regulation of business. He has direct influence over the decisions of the Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities. He also evaluates the selection and performance of the commissioners and key staff members who perform much of the commission’s work. He holds similar power over selection of members of the board of directors of Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company.
Alexander said he’s “a believer in solar energy, … When it’s running on all cylinders it’s great.” But he doubts its reliability as a base source of supply for state utilities.
He said it’s “dangerous and arbitrary” to require utilities to make solar or renewable power a certain portion of their output by any set time. And, he said, consumers, not government, should make the choice on whether to use solar energy.
Alexander expresses concern over altering a public utility system that he credits with giving South Carolinians “some of the more reasonable utility rates in the country.”
Still, Alexander said he’s willing to let the legislative process continue to build some consensus. “I don’t close any doors.”
Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston
Speaker of the House
Ex-Officio member of the House Operations and Management Committee
As speaker of the House, Harrell has enormous powers over appointments and commissions. He can pull many levers to help or impede a piece of legislation. Amid other priorities, solar power legislation simply hasn’t been on Harrell’s radar. One reason: in the House, bills that die in subcommittees, as happened with third-party leasing and solar tax credits, don’t get much attention from House leaders such as Harrell.
Even so, Harrell said he supports solar-related tax credits and third-party leasing, “I’d like to see them become law.” But, he said, significant opposition exists on the subcommittee level, which makes it harder to pass something. But, he said, “we’ll be talking about it this year, and hopefully we’ll get it out of the House and over to the Senate.”