Beaufort News

Public Service Commission to re-examine solar power rules

Santee Cooper, Palmetto Electric Cooperative and the Technical College of the Lowcountry installed a 20-kilowatt solar array at the Technical College of the Lowcountry's New River campus in 2010.
Santee Cooper, Palmetto Electric Cooperative and the Technical College of the Lowcountry installed a 20-kilowatt solar array at the Technical College of the Lowcountry's New River campus in 2010. - Staff photo

The state utilities commission will take another look at solar energy rules that are blamed for hampering the expansion of sun power in South Carolina.

In an unusual decision June 27, the Public Service Commission agreed to hold an interactive public workshop Sept. 12 to discuss policies that govern solar energy.

The commission will review the state's 5-year-old rules on net metering, a program intended to help people, businesses and nonprofit groups more easily use solar power in South Carolina.

Renewable-energy advocates say the program needs updating because of increasing interest in solar energy in a state with some of the nation's most restrictive controls on sun power.

The net-metering program includes a cap on the amount of solar energy allowed for those who use a combination of sun power and energy from utilities -- and that is beginning to limit businesses and schools.

For example, the 100-kilowatt cap has hampered Furman University's ability to add more solar power at its campus north of Greenville, The (Columbia) State newspaper reported.

Energy observers say the cap should be raised above 100 kilowatts to protect the school and others.

Hilton Head Island contractor Tom Donald, whose home is powered by solar energy, said the state needs to do more to encourage the use of solar energy. He would like to see the commission focus on increasing the rate power companies pay for net-metering, which would encourage more people to switch to solar.

"There's no interest" in solar energy, he said, "because there's no incentive."

And to put a cap on the amount of kilowatts is "salt on the wound," he adds.

Nationally, about two dozen states have less restrictive caps for nonresidential customers than South Carolina, according to a 2013 report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

People who generate electricity from solar panels need less power from utilities, which saves them money on power bills. Solar energy also reduces reliance on energy produced from nuclear and coal-fired power plants.

The utilities commission, by a 2009 state agreement, is required to review the solar net-metering rules sometime this year. The agency recently indicated that renewable energy is of substantial interest to the public. Representatives from utilities have been hesitant to embrace widespread solar use because of the potential loss of revenue.

Dukes Scott, director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, said the workshop forum is not a typical way for the utilities commission to address issues. But it is a welcome change for some. Officials with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League said it would provide for greater public participation than a formal hearing or presentation.

"We think that is a much more constructive way to do it," said Kenneth Sercy, an energy analyst with the Coastal Conservation League. "There will be more of an exchange between different parties."

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette contributed to this report.

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