A bill that’s been proposed in the state Senate would allow Duke Energy and other utilities in South Carolina to monopolize the sun’s power and would stifle competition for rooftop solar, national solar business groups said Monday, though Duke Energy called the bill fair to all involved.
The solar bill was hailed last week by legislators, utilities and in-state solar and conservation groups as a compromise that would open South Carolina to the sun and could lead to investments of more than 300 megawatts in solar energy in the state.
Pro-solar groups in South Carolina said last week the bill would allow customers to lease rooftop solar panels from third-party businesses for the first time, making solar affordable for many ratepayers who couldn’t fork out $15,000-$20,000 upfront cost to install solar panels.
But now groups that represent national rooftop solar installers say they don’t stand a chance to compete in South Carolina the way the bill is written.
“Effectively what the bill says is Duke can build solar, but their customers can’t, and no other small businesses in the state can,” said Bryan Miller, president of Alliance for Solar Choice, which represents solar installers, and vice president of public policy in power markets with SunRun, a California-based solar installer.
The Alliance for Solar Choice says the way the bill is worded allows utilities like Duke Energy to directly invest in solar energy themselves while shutting out competition.
A Duke Energy spokesman wouldn’t address the specific criticism that the bill would allow Duke to monopolize solar in its service area, but said Duke is in favor of the bill as proposed.
“Duke Energy supports the bill as amended,” said Ryan Mosier, Duke spokesman. “We think it’s a comprehensive, collaborative and forward-looking approach to the topic. If it becomes law, this state can become the national model for how solar growth can be successful and fair to all stakeholders.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to debate the bill – S536 – today.
The criticism caught the attention of solar backers in South Carolina who now say the issue of competition for rooftop solar needs to be addressed in the current bill.
Rooftop solar installers saw that in other states the utilities “slow-walked residential solar” because utilities wanted to cut down on the number of consumers who were starting to generate their own energy, said Blan Holman, a Charleston-based attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“They read the bill to maybe set South Carolina down that same path of potentially having utilities operate everything and own everything and not leave room for competition,” Holman said Monday.
“I don’t think that that was the intent of the groups that have been working on this bill, but certainly it needs to be clarified that one of the points is to allow for some competition for residential solar. That seems like a good idea.”
Miller said utilities should be forced to compete for solar with the free market and said national rooftop solar installers wouldn’t be able to do business in South Carolina under the bill’s current structure.
Miller said Duke has shifted its position on rooftop solar recently from opposing it altogether to now wanting to own it completely.
“Why have they flipped their position on this?” Miller said. “I think it’s really quite simple. Utilities have lost battles on rooftop solar 9-0 in the last year. They’ve lost every single one of them.”
The Alliance for Solar Choice pointed legislative defeats of utilities on rooftop solar in California, Arizona, Louisiana and Idaho in 2013, and Washington, Utah, Louisiana, Kansas and Vermont in 2014.
Another national solar group, Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, which advocates for a free market approach to solar, released a statement that called the solar bill toxic.
“Duke is holding solar energy hostage and trying to own the sun,” said Barry Goldwater Jr., the former Republican U.S. representative from California who co-chairs T.U.S.K. “That’s fundamentally anti-competitive, and it’s not the conservative way.”
Grant Reeves, president of the South Carolina Solar Business Alliance, which helped craft the bill, called the criticism a misperception of what’s actually stated in the bill.
Reeves said any utility investment in the solar program would have to be approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, just like investments are regulated now.
“So there’s no monopoly given any utility,” Reeves said. “If a utility wants to recover their costs, they have to justify it.”
Businesses who believe they can provide a cheaper or better service would be able to appeal to the same commission, Reeves said.
“There are no cart blanche benefits given the utilities,” Reeves said. “They have to justify to the commission that those are just and reasonable. It may be that a third party can offer a better deal and the commissioners would look at that and say, ‘Wouldn’t you be better off contracting with a third party rather than building this yourself?’”
It will boil down to whether a third party, which can take advantage of federal tax credits through 2017, can build solar cheaper than the utility, which can’t access the tax credits, Reeves said.
“South Carolina is leading on positive solar policy and other interests in the nation are paying attention to it, and it doesn’t align with how they see the world so there must be something wrong with it,” Reeves said.
“South Carolina has studied solar policy long and hard, and we’ve come up with a comprehensive program that everybody supports in this state.”