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SC utility involved in solar dust-up

Solar panels are growing in popularity in South Carolina as a way to provide energy and cut monthly power bills. These panels are at Furman University in Greenville.
Solar panels are growing in popularity in South Carolina as a way to provide energy and cut monthly power bills. These panels are at Furman University in Greenville. sfretwell@thestate.com

South Carolina’s state-owned power company is facing criticism over a solar energy plan that some contend will discourage customers from using rooftop sun panels to cut utility bills.

Santee Cooper’s proposal is too complicated and expensive for those interested in installing solar panels, according to the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, a leading advocate of solar energy.

But the utility, whose board is to discuss the matter Dec. 7, says its proposal builds on the company’s commitment to solar energy in South Carolina by providing incentives customers want.

“We have created an incentive package that will make it attractive and desirable for our customers who are investing in solar,’’ Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said.

The dustup is occurring as South Carolina has begun to expand the use of solar power, a non-polluting source of energy that can result in lower power bills for customers.

Last year, power companies, environmentalists and solar energy groups reached a compromise to loosen state rules that had for decades limited solar energy expansion in the Palmetto State.

The compromise resulted in a change in the law. Since 2014, interest has grown among companies seeking to develop solar farms and provide rooftop solar panels to homeowners and businesses.

State law in the past had restricted solar companies from leasing solar panels so people could afford the upfront expense of installation. Installing solar panels on a home can cost $20,000 or more.

Hamilton Davis, energy director for the conservation league, said Santee Cooper’s plan “runs counter” to what other power companies are doing in South Carolina. SCE&G and Duke have more customer friendly plans, he said.

Davis said the Santee Cooper plan has a number of problems, including:

▪  Extra charges on sun-powered homes for the use of utility lines, power poles and other costs.

▪  Poor rates for extra solar power that homes produce and sell back to the power grid. Santee Cooper charges residential customers about 11 cents per kilowatt hour to buy energy. But the company would buy back excess solar power for substantially less.

While Santee Cooper’s incentives package could offset some of those costs, Davis said it’s so complex few people will bother to use it. As a result, rooftop solar for businesses and homeowners won’t expand the way it should, he said.

“It is insanely complicated,’’ Davis said of the solar incentive plan. “Nobody is going to use this. From a customer perspective, this is almost impenetrable.’’

In addition to the conservation league, industry groups such as The Alliance for Solar Choice, a national organization, have expressed reservations about the Santee Cooper plan.

Santee Cooper directly serves areas in and around Florence, Myrtle Beach and Moncks Corner, where the company is headquartered. It also provides power for most of the state’s electric cooperatives. All told, Santee Cooper power serves about half of the state’s more than 4 million residents.

Gore said the league’s criticisms are misleading.

“Our incentives will be as valuable to our customers as whatever the details are of the other solar programs in the state,’’ she said. “There are no hoops.’’

Overall, Gore said Santee Cooper has been a leader in solar energy. The company developed the state’s first solar farm in Colleton County and is committed to the expansion of drawing energy from the sun, she said.

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