The Post and Courier
April 28, 2021
By John McDermott
State regulators have denied Dominion Energy’s plan to charge a suite of new fees to future solar-power customers in a ruling that’s being held up as a victory for the rooftop solar industry.
The S.C. Public Service Commission issued its decision April 28 after months of hearings, testimony and debate, according to the Southern Environment Law Center.
“The PSC rejected requests from Dominion Energy and the Office of Regulatory Staff to hike solar fees and impose new charges on customers to a level that would put rooftop solar out of reach for most households,” the group said in a statement.
Instead, the commissioners adopted an alternative price plan proposed by several advocacy groups, including the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The new fee will be based on Dominion’s existing “time-of-use” rate, which will rise to $13.50 a month from $9. The higher rate will apply to panels that connect to the grid after May 31 in the utility’s South Carolina service territory, which covers areas around Charleston, Columbia, Beaufort, Orangeburg and Aiken.
“Thankfully, today’s decision will support the growing rooftop solar market for Dominion Energy customers, without the high fees Dominion tried to impose,” said Eddy Moore, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League.
The ruling won’t immediately affect the company’s 11,000 or so current solar customers in the state. They’ll keep their existing billing arrangements until 2025 or 2029, depending on when their panels started producing power.
Dominion, which expanded into the state when it bought South Carolina Electric & Gas more than two years ago, was proposing to increase rates to ensure solar customers pay for their share of maintenance and operating expenses.
Installers, environmental groups and other industry interests feared the higher prices would drive away customers and reduce competition.
Dominion wanted to more than double prices for new residential solar customers to $19 a month under its original plan. The fee for commercial was to jump to $32.50. Opponents said the proposed charges could total $70 in some cases.
The pricing issue is tied to the Energy Freedom Act, which in 2019 lifted the cap on how many South Carolina homes and businesses can install solar panels. Lawmakers instructed regulators to ensure other ratepayers do not subsidize the costs associated with the growth.
Dominion said it will review the commission’s final order once it is completed.
“We believe that our proposal … complied with the Legislature’s expectations and plain language of the law to eliminate the cost shift and/or subsidy to the greatest extent practicable,” the Richmond, Va.-based utility said in a statement.
“Today’s decision means that customers who choose not to have solar panels on their homes will continue to pay more to subsidize the costs for those who do,” the company added. “With over 1,000 megawatts of solar on our electric generation system, Dominion Energy will continue to be a leader in a clean energy future for South Carolina, and solar energy plays a big part in our plans.”
Moore of the Coastal Conservation League gave a nod to the members of the PSC, which had been widely viewed as a rubber-stamp panel before the failed expansion of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in mid-2017 led to major reforms. The regulators reviewed all sides of the complicated issue before reaching a “pro-solar decision,” he said.
“They put it all together and thought about it and issued this ruling, which provides a good path forward for people to continue putting solar on their rooftops in Dominion’s territory,” said Moore, who was a witness in the rate case.
Frank Knapp, CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, called the 5-0 decision “clear evidence that the commission is no longer in the back pocket of the utility industry.”
Sunrun Inc., a large residential panel installer that fought the original rate plan, said it was pleased with the ruling.
“This unanimous decision will accomplish what the Energy Freedom Act set out to do: support the growth and economic viability of rooftop solar,” said Tyson Grinstead, public policy director for the San Francisco-based company.