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Solar power in South Carolina: What consumers need to know

The recent passage of the Energy Freedom Act means big opportunities for the future of solar energy in South Carolina.

Through the provisions in this legislation, more homeowners and businesses will be able to take advantage of this renewable and clean energy source.

While finances may not be the driving factor behind the decision to use solar, we recommend treating solar like any other major investment.

Here is a step-by-step approach to take in considering solar.

First, educate yourself about solar. The S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) Energy Office has developed solar.sc.gov, a one-stop-shop about solar energy in South Carolina. It includes information about the benefits of solar, how to choose the right system for your needs, installation and maintenance, and costs and financial incentives. This site also includes a downloadable booklet, A Consumer Guide to Solar for the South Carolina Homeowner, that includes information that you need when choosing a solar system.

Second, determine if solar is feasible in your area. Contact your electric provider, because you will need its approval in order to connect to the grid. Some providers do not buy back power and, among those who do, terms of the buy-back plans may vary. Also, if you are in a homeowners’ association, be sure to check with them to see if they allow solar.

Third, identify qualified contractors. Scammers prey on the uninformed. Be sure to do your homework in identifying qualified contractors. You can turn to groups that know South Carolina’s solar landscape to help in your decision-making. Nonprofit organizations, such as the S.C. Solar Council (www.scsolarcouncil.org) and the S.C. Solar Business Alliance (www.solarbusinessalliance.com), maintain lists of solar companies on their websites, and the SC Residential Builders Commission (RBC) registers and/or licenses the individuals who can install and do other necessary work related to solar panels. You can view that information at https://www.llr.sc.gov/POL/ResidentialBuilders/.

Fourth, request several bids and ask questions. Contact several solar companies from the pool of qualified candidates, get multiple quotes, and ask for references. With competition on the rise, it is to your advantage to compare prices among comparable, qualified contractors.

For a complete list of questions to ask your installer, check out http://solar.sc.gov/questionstoaskasolarinstaller. Keep in mind that bids should not be the only consideration. Also ask whether each contractor has the necessary licenses and liability insurance with South Carolina. Make sure to verify with the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation that the company has a valid contractor’s license and does not have any complaints pending before the Contractor’s Licensing Board https://www.llr.sc.gov/POL/Contractors/.

Fifth, consider leasing. Leasing, rather than owning, solar panels may be the preferable choice for some consumers, especially if the availability of a tax credit is not important. Those considering the leasing option should bear in mind that, by law, only companies approved by the ORS to offer leases can offer that service. If you decide to lease a solar system, visit the ORS website at https://regulatorystaff.sc.gov/consumers/electric-natural-gas/solar to ensure that the company has been approved as a leasing provider.

Getting help. If you do encounter a contractor or solar installer who causes you concern, you can contact your local Better Business Bureau. For concerns or questions about solar leasing companies or investor-owned electric utilities, you can contact the ORS by phone at 1-800-922-1531.

For concerns regarding solar sales, contact the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs at 803-734-4200.

If the contractor is licensed through the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, contact that agency as well, at 803-896-4470.

Nanette S. Edwards is executive director of the South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff. The Office of Regulatory Staff is an agency of the State of South Carolina. Its mission is to represent the public interest in utility regulation. For more information, please visit www.ors.sc.gov.