State Tells University: No More Solar For You!

Amazingly, in 2013 in some parts of the United States, the challenge isn’t about getting governments to do more to help renewable energy flourish – it’s about getting them to stop putting roadblocks in the way.

Check this out: According to a story in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Furman University has been installing solar energy on its Greenville campus, hoping to trim the pollution it causes and maybe save some money. “But Furman’s solar energy push has hit a wall,” the newspaper reports. “The university has reached a state limit that prevents it from installing more solar to heat and light campus buildings.”

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Solar panels at Furman University, Greenville, S.C. (image via Furman)

South Carolina, in its wisdom, limits nonresidential solar to 100 kilowatts. This is a net metering regulation that goes beyond protecting utilities’ ability to maintain a secure power supply; it’s about protecting a tired old business model.

The good news here is that this story about Furman’s predicament seems to have woken up some folks in South Carolina. Because according to a subsequent article in The State,  “In an unusual decision” the South Carolina Public Service Commission said it would hold a public workshop in September regarding the state’ s net metering policies. Renewable energy backers said they liked the sound of this, so perhaps there’s hope for South Carolina.

But here’s the thing: South Carolina isn’t alone in severly limiting solar growth. Sure, the state gets an F grade from Freeing the Grid for its net metering policies; but so too do sunny places like Georgia, which also imposes a 100-kW nonresidential limit, and Oklahoma, where just in case the 100-kW limit isn’t bad enough, there’s also a 25,000-kilowatt-hour annual limit, and the law is “whichever is less.” Heck, a 20-kW system performing modestly in Oklahoma could kick out 25,000 kWh in a year.

How do utilities justify these limits? They say that generous net metering schemes fail to take into account the cost of poles, wires, substations and the like – things that all customers, even those who produce more solar than their total power usage, rely upon.

But Solar advocates have argued that the utilities are ignoring the benefits that distributed solar brings: reduced pollution and expenses for conventional power; less need for new investment in transmission and distribution; reduced transmission losses; and reduced costs of meeting renewable energy standards.

The California pro-solar group Vote Solar Initiative earlier this year released a report that called utility cost claims for net metering inflated, and said that even in California, which has way more distributed solar than South Carolina, getting more solar in place would benefit ratepayers to the tune of a combined $92.2 million per year.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.