March 21, 2021
Since opening 12 years ago at an old industrial site in Columbia, the City Roots organic farm has developed a loyal following among people who want to buy locally grown produce or attend community dinners hosted by the small operation’s owners.
Today, with the farm’s popularity continuing to increase, the owners of City Roots are looking to add more greenhouses to grow kale, broccoli, radishes and other crops for grocery stores in the region.
Unfortunately, the farm has run into a big obstacle: Dominion Energy. Solar energy that makes the expansion affordable could become more expensive under a plan by the Virginia-headquartered utility.
The power company is proposing extra costs for solar energy users that City Roots co-owner Eric McClam said could hurt his ability to increase the farm’s use of solar power. City Roots was counting on saving about $600 a month by installing solar panels to help pay for the expansion.
“If this all goes through, there is a chance we don’t do it at all,’’ McClam said of the expansion at City Roots. “Economically, we may need to wait.’’
Dominion’s proposal has solar energy users and supporters upset as the company plows ahead with a plan it says is needed to protect non-solar users from subsidizing people who rely on solar to defray power bills.
The utility says it needs the state Public Service Commission to approve extra costs Dominion proposes for solar customers, who — despite having solar panels — still use some energy provided by Dominion. Utilities like Dominion contend that they provide power lines solar customers use to send excess energy from the sun back to the power grid. Non-solar customers also are subsidizing solar customers, the utility says.
Plenty of people plan to give the Public Service Commission their thoughts during a virtual hearing Tuesday about the increased solar charges.
All told, more than 175 people have signed up to speak, although Dominion is trying to disqualify at least 23 speakers because it says they are not customers. Most of those wanting to speak are expected to oppose Dominion’s plan, to be ruled upon next month.
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Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, understands why people are eager to speak out. Dominion’s plan will make solar more expensive for the average user of sun power and chill its expansion in South Carolina, he said.
“It is draconian,’’ Knapp said of the Dominion plan, which he said would “drive the reputable solar companies out of South Carolina. “
“It is going to discourage the use of rooftop solar, and to the degree there is still a market for rooftop solar, it is going to be fed by disreputable companies.’’
Producing energy from the sun is a simple concept, but the way solar energy works for homeowners is more complicated. Most solar users rely on both the power they generate from rooftop sun panels during the day and energy produced by power companies at night. That system reduces the demand for the power company’s energy, thus cutting people’s energy bills.
In more than a few cases, people actually make more solar energy than they can use, so the power company buys that back from those customers.
Dominion defends plan
Under the current system, solar customers are paid, or credited, the same amount for the energy they generate as the amount that power companies charge them for power produced by traditional sources. That is commonly referred to as a “1-to-1” system.
But Dominion’s plan would change that.
The company wants to stop paying solar customers at the 1-to-1 rate. The company’s plan would provide a substantial reduction in the amount customers get for providing energy to the power company, say critics who have scrutinized the proposal.
The company also proposes to add several sets of charges, including a subscription fee and a fixed charge. The subscription fee would be $5.40 for each kilowatt of power homeowners solar panels can produce. The fee would be higher for businesses.
The fixed charge would be an extra $10 per month.
All told, the changes proposed by Dominion could cost the average home solar customer more than $50 extra per month, according to Sunrun, a national solar energy company and a major player in the South Carolina market. Businesses, like City Roots, would pay more.
Dominion officials say they are merely trying to deal with the challenges solar energy presents to the power company as interest in solar grows. Company officials say the problem is that non-solar customers are subsidizing solar customers through a charge on their monthly power bills.
“This proceeding is about cost shifting; in other words who pays,’’ Dominion attorney Chad Burgess told the PSC during a hearing earlier this month.
It’s important to note, company officials say, that the company’s plan for solar won’t kick in right away so many existing customers will not be immediately affected. Customers would not be affected until 2026 or 2029, depending on when their solar panels were installed.
In an email to The State this past week, the company said its plan is justified. Dominion’s email said the proposed fixed charge fee will make costs more fair among solar and non-solar customers.
The company said “all of our customers — those with solar and those without — count on us to provide uninterrupted service — even when the sun isn’t shining. The reality is that solar customers on our system still rely on non-solar generating sources 75% of the time, and it’s only fair that they share in the costs for a safe, reliable power system for all customers.’’
The proposed subscription fee “represents a portion of system costs associated with supplying energy to a customer when the sun isn’t shining and solar isn’t available’’
Burgess told the PSC that the company’s proposal won’t hurt rooftop solar in South Carolina and, in fact, will advance it.
“The suggestion that the rooftop solar industry can only survive with the support of the continued subsidies is a claim that is simply unsupported by data, studies or analysis,’’ he told the Public Service Commission.
The recent hearings on Dominion’s plan sparked a dustup with PSC member Tom Ervin recently over statements he made that the power company said showed bias against Dominion’s plan.
“I can tell you that I’m going to fight it because it’s wrong,’’ Ervin said. He added that solar customers “made a financial investment thinking that they would have a chance over time to save money. And you’re taking that away.”
After Dominion complained, Ervin recused himself from the case.
Environmental groups and solar energy companies say that while non-solar customers technically subsidize solar customers, the amount is only a few dollars a year.
As a result, they say the subsidy argument is misleading and solar customers are being hurt. They also have taken aim at the Office of Regulatory Staff, a state agency that is supposed to look out for customers but which they say has not done so.
Meanwhile, Knapp said he can’t see how the Dominion plan will make solar power more viable in South Carolina.
He said the Dominion proposal runs counter to a solar energy law approved by the state Legislature two years ago. That law, which built on a 2014 solar law, intended to encourage the use of cost-saving sun power in South Carolina, which at one point had some of the highest electricity bills in the country.
Until the Legislature changed the law in 2014 and again in 2019, power company policies generally made it hard for people to rely on solar power. At one point, South Carolina had some of the least friendly solar policies in the country, The State has previously reported.
Changes in the law made it easier for people to lease solar panels, which made sun systems more affordable for those who could not pay the upfront cost of buying panels.
“This flies right in the face of the law,’’ Knapp said. “This is the opposite of what the General Assembly intended.’’
McClam, whose farm is located in the Rosewood neighborhood of Columbia, said solar power already has helped him save thousands of dollars and he is eager to speak to the Public Service Commission.
City Roots farm installed a 17-kilowatt solar array about five years ago, paying for it through a combination of government grants and the McClam family’s money. The investment saves the farm about $400 per month on power bills. City Roots pays about $2,000 per month for electricity.
He expects the expansion to double his power bills, and so he wants to add a 31-kilowatt solar system to help defray the costs. Solar panels to be used in the expansion would power lights and exhaust fans in greenhouses.
McClam estimates the solar installment will save him another $600 on monthly electricity charges. But that’s only if Dominion’s new fees and rates don’t go through, he said.
Solar power, however, isn’t just about saving money. It’s also good for the environment, he said.
Producing power from the sun cuts down on demand for traditional sources of power, like coal, that release greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. Producing solar power doesn’t release gases like coal plants do or create waste, as nuclear plants do.
McClam said his business has been affected by the changing climate. Extreme weather caused by climate change has sparked greater use of greenhouses to grow microgreens at City Roots, he said.
“By doing our part to generate energy that doesn’t pollute our air and water, we can make a difference and reduce costs,’’ he said in an opinion piece to be published in The State. “City Roots is trying to do the right thing by the environment and by our customers.
“But Dominion is not.’’