Saluda solar

Gov. Henry McMaster was in Saluda in August 2017 for the ribbon cutting at the Saluda Solar II solar farm.

One day before Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a landmark bill that opens the state’s energy market to independent power providers like never before, Greenwood officials approved the first ever solar project within city limits.

“Our agricultural tax base for land use is minimal. This would be a commercial use. Not only that, there would be a business license fee associated with that,” City Council member Niki Hutto said before the body unanimously voted to rezone 107 acres at 1501 Marshall Road from R-3 (low density residential) to LIW (Limited Industrial/Warehousing), making way for a 4-megwatt project to be managed by Asheville, North Carolina-based Pine Gate Renewables.

“I personally don’t believe that they are an industrial land use, but unfortunately because of the zoning ordinance, this is the only class that allows for solar development,” said Erich Miarka, a project development manager with Pine Gate.

McMaster on Tuesday put his signature on H. 3659, a measure called the “Energy Freedom Act” aimed at dismantling the state’s mega-utility monopolies in favor of more competition.

Key points of the bill include:

• Removal of all solar net metering and leasing caps

• Prohibiting utilities from setting discriminatory rates for solar users

• Preventing utilities from refusing to connect solar projects to the grid

• Allowing direct negotiation between companies and renewable energy providers

• Creation of “neighborhood community solar programs” for low- and moderate-income residents

There’s also language that sets 10-year terms for projects currently in the pipeline. Future contracts can be customized by the state’s Public Service Commission.

“Right now, the difficulty is that there is unequal bargaining power because the utilities sort of get to dictate whether they will allow it long-term, so it puts the solar industry at a disadvantage where if we’re not careful, we limit their ability to participate in energy diversification,” state Sen. Ronnie Sabb, D-Greeleyville, said during an April committee hearing.

McMaster this week hailed the Energy Freedom Act as a visionary piece of legislation.

“This is a great moment for South Carolina. We’ve been blessed with great natural resources. We have a lot of sunshine, and it’s important we take advantage of that. That is an innovation whose time has come for South Carolina, and it’s come in a big way,” he said. “This is a great step for South Carolina and we’ve come up with a great law that will open a lot of doors.”

Republican state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort and a bill co-sponsor, said giving ratepayers greater purchasing power and more autonomy over their energy futures will help prevent future financial disasters such as the mothballed VC Summer Nuclear Generating Station.

“This is the first step toward real energy freedom, and the takeaway for the people of South Carolina is this: we like competition, we like free markets, we like technology, we like people competing out there,” Davis said Tuesday. “We have come up with a piece of legislation that is going to have an impact for generations to come.”

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.