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Viewpoint: Dominion proposal attacks jobs, penalizes customers

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The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy would like to set the record straight on a few of the “facts” Keller Kissam published in the Feb. 22 issue of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Mr. Kissam is president of electric operations for Dominion Energy South Carolina. This monopoly utility is regulated by S.C.’s Public Service Commission, which is currently considering whether or not Dominion’s new proposed solar tariff properly fulfills a state law called the Energy Freedom Act.

In a nutshell, Dominion’s new proposed solar program pulls out all the stops to disincentivize and penalize customers from utilizing rooftop solar. The new solar tariff Dominion proposes is being called a Frankenstein monster that takes the worst rate-making components from across the country and rolls them together for South Carolina. The proposal would force the average solar customer to pay almost $50 per month in extra, discriminatory fees just for owning solar. 

Expert testimony indicates that Dominion’s new rooftop solar proposal would slash bill savings for solar customers by about 55% compared to what the utility currently offers, meaning the estimated payback period for new solar customers would double — 20 years compared to 9.4 years. The effect of this new tariff would essentially be an economic prohibition against new rooftop solar on Dominion Energy’s system, leaving customers with fewer options to save on bills and thousands of South Carolinians who work in the solar industry without a rooftop market in Dominion’s territory — about a quarter of the state.

Mr. Kissam would have us believe that “the proposed Solar Choice tariff will not discourage South Carolinians from choosing solar,” but how could it not? To claim that the drastic changes proposed won’t discourage customers from choosing solar ignores reality.

In order to justify this draconian solar policy, Mr. Kissam offers the tired refrain “it’s only fair that they share the costs,” intended to emphasize that solar customers rely on non-solar generating sources of Dominion’s system part of the time. We must dispel the myth that all time should be considered the same. Solar panels won’t generate power when the sun isn’t shining, but that’s not when Dominion Energy experiences its highest demand for power, or “peak loads.” Between 1998-2018, 90% of high-demand peak hours in this service territory occurred during the summer daytime hours when solar can predictably be relied upon for its output. 

Various studies, including one published just this month by Michigan Technological University, have shown that solar net metering is a net benefit to the entire electric system. In other words, solar customers already pay more than their fair share.

Proposal is an Attack on S.C. Job Market

Not only is this Solar Choice proposal an attack on Dominion customers’ personal freedoms and pocketbooks, it is also an attack on a fast-growing segment of South Carolina’s job market.

National Audubon Society commissioned an analysis last year that indicated the solar industry in South Carolina directly and indirectly contributes 7,250 jobs and a $1.5 billion annual impact on the state’s economy. Solar installers have looked at Dominion’s plan and determined it could drive them out of business, at least in Dominion’s territory. At a time when so many are already suffering economically because of the pandemic, the priority should be on trying to protect and grow good paying jobs rather than losing them.

It’s very important to set the record straight about a SACE report that Mr. Kissam references in his op-ed. Each year in our Solar in the Southeast report, we identify SunRisers, which demonstrate the highest solar ambition in our region over the next four years.

DESC’s predecessor, SCE&G, earned that SunRiser distinction when we began this reporting process three years ago. Dominion inherited that forecast upon acquisition of SCE&G and has, thus far, maintained a similar outlook when it comes to large, utility-scale solar. However, their proposed Solar Choice tariff applies to smaller, distributed solar and, if approved, will most certainly constrain the growth of that segment. While SCE&G/Dominion had been a solar leader in recent years, drastic policy shifts like Dominion’s current proposal would undermine that leadership.

There is a better way forward. A group of parties intervening in the PSC proceeding, including my organization SACE, sponsored testimony from an expert that includes an alternative solar rate design.

The proposal from the Joint Clean Energy Intervenors requires customers with solar to take service under Dominion’s time-of-use rate which provides a price signal to align customer behavior with controlling costs of the utility.

This alternative proposal would also impose a minimum bill on solar customers to ensure that they continue to “pay their fair share” of the utility infrastructure cost. Rather than the regressive Dominion proposal, this alternative is both consistent with the obligations of the Energy Freedom Act and passes all of the standard cost-benefit tests. Dominion should embrace this approach to avoid disrupting the growing solar market and continue enabling private investment in distributed energy resources in the Palmetto State. 

Bryan Jacob is Solar Program Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

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