Economic Development Meets Clean Energy in South Carolina

Darcy Jones

Integrating socioeconomically inclusive behavior is a strong point of South Carolina’s clean energy programs. Three staffers at South Carolina Energy Office, Energy Policy Analyst Darcy Jones (the primary source), Deputy Director of Energy Maeve Mason, and Energy Specialist Stacey Washington, completed a joint written interview where they shared insights about how to protect low-to-moderate-income consumers. 

CEFF: How would you describe the solar-energy market's current successes and challenges in South Carolina?

SCEO: The passage of the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act, Act 236, in 2014 ushered in a new era of solar leasing in South Carolina. Solar installations have grown exponentially since that time. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of solar installations has grown by more than 9,000. This is over a 16-fold increase. This growth represents a capacity increase of 173 MW.

In addition to authorizing solar leasing, Act 236 established the operating guidelines for net metering. It also provided regulated utilities with a means for cost recovery via incentives for renewable energy procurement. The latter incentivizes utilities to procure electricity from utility-scale solar installations and to develop programs to increase the adoption of consumer-scale solar installations.

However, with this incredible growth has come significant challenges. Predatory sales practices have led to fraud cases, consumer frustrations, and even poor designs or inoperable systems. Social media platforms designed as lead-generating sites have also frustrated consumers. As a result, the Office of Regulatory Staff Energy Office has designed a SOLAR.SC.GOV website to protect energy consumers and provide unbiased information.

In addition, as projected targets for residential solar have been or are close to being met, legislation was filed at the South Carolina State House pertaining to the renewable energy property tax, Commercial-Property-Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE), and a consumer bill of rights.

While this legislation was ultimately not successful during last session, the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee has asked the South Carolina Energy Office to take these issues up in a study committee designed to examine Act 236 and its future in South Carolina.

CEFF: What is your perspective on the energy efficiency market's successes and challenges at this time in South Carolina?

SCEO: South Carolina has seen some remarkable successes in energy efficiency. In 2008, the legislature mandated that state agencies and public-school districts must reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 (relative to 2000 levels).

The state has seen an 82 percent increase in ENERGY STAR certifications for K-12 schools since 2015. The 2016 State Energy Plan prominently featured energy efficiency in its top-tier recommendations. [It also sought] to update building energy codes and expand energy finance products. [It also targeted] streamlining processes for performing energy audits for public entities.

South Carolina is proud of its strong commercial and industrial sectors, including aeronautical and automobile assembly. These sectors account for over half of the state’s total energy consumption.

State law enables lease-purchase agreements of energy-efficient equipment and energy performance contracting, but both arrangements are arguably underutilized. And as mentioned above, initiatives to enable C-PACE in legislation have not succeeded in the past.

On the residential side, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, who serve over a quarter of the state’s residents, piloted the Help My House on-bill financing program that sparked the national Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program through the United States Department of Agriculture.

Nonetheless, the housing stock in our state is old. It is often in need of more comprehensive and more expensive weatherization projects than are typically included in energy efficiency programs.

Additionally, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, 16 percent of South Carolinians reside in manufactured homes. That’s one of the highest proportions in the nation.

Due in part to state tax credits for more energy-efficient homes, the number of manufactured homes adhering to energy efficiency standards has risen from only 16 percent in 1998 to approximately 80 percent today.

Because low-income residents and communities of color bear a disproportionately high energy burden, there is an opportunity for energy efficiency programs to simultaneously address multiple issues within the state.

Additionally, Duke Energy Carolinas, Duke Energy Progress, and South Carolina Electric & Gas have energy efficiency programs for the residential and commercial/industrial sectors.

They offer rebates for items such as lighting and HVAC. In addition to rebates, they provide additional funding to the state Weatherization Assistance Program.

These utilities also each have programs geared toward the low-income community to help with home weatherization. A few of the cooperatives and municipal utilities also offer energy efficiency programs. More details on these programs can be found in our annual energy efficiency report.

CEFF: What stakeholder decisions would catalyze forward movement in these two markets in South Carolina?

SCEO: The state legislature could further support energy conservation by passing energy efficiency resource standards and more stringent building codes.

Our state’s strong industrial sector has untapped potential to adopt energy-efficient technologies, such as combined heat and power systems.

Across the state, public awareness of utilities’ energy-efficiency programs remains low. Utilities could take steps to increase their marketing and expand their program offerings.

Note: Emma McDonald contributed research to this article.

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