Schism in the South: The debate over renewables splits the GOP.


In the past few years, the United States has seen a rush of support for solar at the state level. California passed a mandate requiring all new homes to be built with rooftop solar systems as of 2020, while the Massachusetts Senate just approved a bill to remove caps on net metering and set the state on a path to 100% renewable energy.

In the South, however, this wave of solar utilization has been underwhelming and top-heavy. While the South does feature North Carolina, the nation’s 2nd largest solar market, Florida, 8th and Georgia, 10th, the rest of the region is notably lacking in development.

Change could be around the corner, and the results of South Carolina’s primary state elections point to that. While solar has often seen more support in states where the Democratic Party is dominant, what we are now seeing is Republican support due to the economic benefits of solar deployment.

Companies that have seen success in North Carolina are looking at South Carolina to replicate their success, which would bring jobs to the area and help to provide competition to South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) and Duke Energy.

This most recent South Carolina election highlighted a split in the GOP. Nathan Ballentine, Micah Caskey, Randy Ligon, Max Hyde and Bobby Cox, all of which have been identified by Sunrun as pro-solar candidates, won their primaries and will be on the ballot for the South Carolina House of Representatives. Additionally, Rep. Katie Arrington won her race against Rep. Mark Sanford for the Republican nomination for a seat in the U.S. house of representatives. Incumbent Henry McMaster is currently in a runoff in his bid for re-nomination as the GOP candidate for governor.

Much of the drive towards solar can be attributed to the failure of the state’s utilities to deliver competitively-priced electricity. Recently, SCG&E spent $9 billion on a failed nuclear power plant, which is now costing taxpayers across the state $27 per month. The utility’s customers pay an average monthly electric bill of $163, quite possibly the highest in the country.

This combination plays right into the hands of residential solar which, through net metering, allows customers to offset the cost of their consumed electricity through the power which they generate. Therein lies the penultimate issue: in 2018, most utilities aren’t against solar. In fact, South Carolina has a multitude of utility-owned solar projects. However, many utilities are still resisting residential solar because they don’t own it and it cuts into their revenues.

These elections come in the context of political battles over solar policy. Recently, H4421, a bill to remove caps on net metering was defeated due to a technicality in language requiring a 2/3 majority that was not met, although later language raising the caps was inserted into an unrelated bill. Ballentine, Caskey and Arrington all supported the failed bill, with the two former having assisted in drafting it.

South Carolina could well prove to be a pivotal state for the development of the solar industry in the South. If the state is able to prove that the issue is bipartisan and that the economic impact is just as important as the environmental one, it’s neighbors could likely follow suit.

Solar deployment in the South will not look like it has in the Northeast or Southwest. North and South Carolina are the only states in the South with Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policies, and South Carolina’s is a goal, not a mandate and not binding. That being said, Georgia and Florida have no RPS and are fast-growing solar markets.

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