Hours before one of South Carolina’s largest utilities won tax breaks from Greenwood County leaders for a massive solar farm to be built in Hodges, legislators urged their colleagues to greenlight a measure they said would revolutionize the power industry statewide.

“The people of South Carolina are paying attention. They see how it doesn’t make any sense to stick with a 60-year old model that gives certain mega-utilities monopolies. It’s time to open up competition, it’s time to let consumers take advantage of that competition,” state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said during a Tuesday press conference in Columbia to advocate for H. 3659, a House bill known as the “Energy Freedom Act.”

After making it through the House on a 110-0 vote, the measure slowed down in the Senate, where disagreements arose about minimum contract lengths for projects.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week voted 4-1 to move the measure forward, but the full panel on Tuesday said more time was needed to review amendments and language.

State Sen. Mike Gambrell, R-Honea Path and subcommittee chairman, said Tuesday all sides were close on that matter.

“The biggest thing we kept coming around to was the 10-year contract language for the solar farms. We included some language that was given to us by (state Office of Regulatory Staff) that almost everybody could agree on,” he said.

Proponents have called H. 3659 a landmark piece of legislation that will help break up utility monopolies that dominated state energy policy for decades in several ways:

Removal of all solar net metering and leasing caps

Prohibiting utilities from setting discriminatory rates for solar users

Preventing utilities from refusing to connect solar projects to the grid

Allow direct negotiation between companies and renewable energy providers

Creation of “neighborhood community solar programs” for low and moderate income residents

“We’re here to say ‘scrap the cap’ and unleash solar energy in South Carolina and make South Carolina the new sunshine state in America,” said Matt Moore, a former state Republican Party chairman and current leader of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition.

A 2 percent solar cap was established in 2014 via Act 236, a sweeping measure that looked to diversify the state’s energy portfolio. Under that legislation, South Carolina’s three largest investor-owned utilities — Duke Energy Progress, Duke Energy Carolinas and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. — were required to make solar net metering available to customers until the number of systems reached 2 percent of the previous five-year average of peak demand.

And it worked. A December analysis by San Francisco-based Energy and Environmental Economics found. The firm was retained by the state Office of Regulatory Staff to gauge the impacts of Act 236. A copy of the report was made public through the Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee.

“Since the passage of Act 236, the penetration of renewable energy in South Carolina has increased dramatically. The Energy Office reports that installed solar capacity in the state rose from just over 5 megawatts (MW) in July 2015 to nearly 470 MW in July 2018, an increase of over 9,000% in three years,” the report found.

That 2 percent threshold has been met and in some cases exceeded as utility companies see more and more consumers turning toward solar as an energy option.

The County Council on Tuesday was expected to take action on “Project GS1,” the codename for a $75 million Duke Energy venture to be built along more than 1,230 acres. In exchange for its investment, Duke will receive a fee-in-lieu-of-tax deal that sets an assessed property tax ratio of 6 percent over 30 years.

“This is about opening up energy product markets, it’s about allowing solar and other independent energy producers a level playing field,” Davis said. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever for ratepayers to be held captive to a monopoly utility. In every other sector of our economy, you see a better product at a lower cost yielded when producers have to compete and consumers have choice.”

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.


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