After construction of two additional reactor units at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station ended in 2017 with billions of dollars of debt, 5,000 people out of work and no new reactors, lawmakers jumped to investigate what had happened.
But something else happened too.
“You had a really tough situation there with that plant that I think got everyone thinking ‘All right, how are we going to do this differently in the state?’” said Mark Fleming, president and CEO of Conservatives for Clean Energy.
Now, fewer than three years later, South Carolina is being seen by some as a model for how bipartisan clean energy legislation can be accomplished in a conservative state.
“We, in the last few years, have really forged new ground and shown how you can have bipartisan agreement on efforts to grow a viable, clean energy marketplace that’s going to lower barriers for ratepayers, reduce pollution across the state and create tens of thousands of jobs for our residents,” said John Tynan, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
Last year, the General Assembly unanimously passed the Energy Freedom Act, which paved the way for the growth of renewable energy in South Carolina by, among other things, eliminating the net metering cap for rooftop solar and allowing independent power producers to sell power to the grid.
“That’s the landmark legislation that passed in South Carolina in the last couple of years,” Tynan said. “That was really, as I’ve described it ... the most forward-thinking clean energy policy in our state’s history.”
Heather Reams, executive director of Washington, D.C.- based Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, said very few Republican lawmakers nationally are focused on climate policy, but in South Carolina, the conversation has been going on for years.
“The South Carolina Republicans have been ahead of the game, and Congress is catching up to where South Carolina is,” Reams said.
She added that when she talks to legislators in other states, South Carolina is used as an example of how a Republican-controlled state can be a leader on clean energy policy.
“South Carolina is breaking the mold,” Reams said. “South Carolina is breaking stereotypes and ... it’s a bipartisan issue, it’s a consumer issue. It’s smart policy. It’s smart politics.”
Fleming said South Carolina has an “embarrassment of riches” in leadership on clean energy issues.
“There’s something about the coastal areas and ... a state that’s very much tied to agriculture,” he said. “And we don’t get into the climate conversation a whole lot, but there is definitely a sense that something is happening and that we need to look for solutions that are helpful in that regard from an environmental perspective.”
Clean energy has become a bipartisan issue in South Carolina, Tynan said, for three reasons: it lowers energy bills; it reduces air pollution and water pollution; and it helps jumpstart and further transition the state into the 21st century. Reams also said that clean energy policies have a clear economic value, helping to create jobs and attract business to the state.
“There’s a reason for everybody to get behind clean energy right now,” Tynan said.
Luke Byars, an adviser for Conservatives for Clean Energy based in Columbia, said it’s been remarkable to see the state shift toward clean energy. He added, though, that the stakeholders in the state still have ample room for more growth, including building more solar farms and investments in wind power projects.
“We’re not all there yet, and there’s still more to be done,” Byars said. “We still have a Public Service Commission that’s elected by the legislature. That’s very unusual. It’s very archaic.”
Tynan also said the General Assembly needs to make sure the Public Service Commission is following the Energy Freedom Act the way that the legislature intended. The legislation deferred a lot of rulemaking and decision-making to the commission, Tynan said.
“The steps moving forward are for the General Assembly to take a close look at the Public Service Commission, who’s serving on the commission, who’s staffing the commission, and making sure that they are faithfully implementing the Energy Freedom Act as the legislature intended,” he said. “And then assessing if the commission and its staff have the right knowledge, the right resources, the right balance to actually do the job that they’ve been assigned.”
The legislature has a big opportunity this year, Tynan said, with four seats on the Public Service Commission up for new appointments.
Tyson Grinstead, director of public policy for solar panel company SunRun Inc., said South Carolina also needs to look at introducing a property tax exemption for solar panels and ensuring that homeowner associations can’t outright ban neighborhoods from having solar panels.
He added that South Carolina, and the rest of the country, is at a crossroads when it comes to energy.
“You’re getting your energy from broader, cleaner sources, and so stakeholders going forward have a real question to answer,” Grinstead said. “And that’s how do we foster more choice and competition. But also, utilities have to figure out, you know, are they going to be agents of the past? Or are they going to try to work together with companies who are pushing forward on solar and wind?”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.