South Carolina Just Passed A Major Solar Bill And Sued The EPA

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens to a question while meeting with reporters in Atlantic Beach, S.C., on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. CREDIT: AP/BRUCE SMITH
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens to a question while meeting with reporters in Atlantic Beach, S.C., on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. CREDIT: AP/BRUCE SMITH

The Palmetto State can now see the light when it comes to solar power but state politicians remain in the dark shadow of coal when it comes to climate change. South Carolina’s Republican governor Nikki Haley has made a point of keeping her views on climate change to herself. This type of tight-lipped politicking is what allows her do things like disparage the EPA’s carbon reduction efforts and sign bills promoting solar in almost the same breath.

On Wednesday, Gov. Haley held a signing ceremony for a bill encouraging solar energy development in the state, which lags severely behind neighbors Georgia and North Carolina with only about eight megawatts of solar power. Meanwhile, earlier in the week South Carolina joined 11 other states in suing the EPA over their recently-proposed regulations of carbon emissions from existing coal plants, which Gov. Haley has said would hurt the state, hurt the country, and “send us backwards.”

Sol Systems, a solar financing firm, estimates that the changes to South Carolina’s solar policy could help the state expand to 300 megawatts in the next six years. The bill requires utilities serving over 100,000 customers to obtain two percent of their average peak power demand from solar energy sources by 2020, with half of that coming from 1–10 megawatt solar projects and the other half from solar projects under one megawatt. The bill also increases the net metering cap by tenfold from 100 kilowatt to one megawatt and allows solar leasing in the state for the first time, which will help more homeowners install panels.

At the signing ceremony, Gov. Haley praised the South Carolina Legislature’s push to make solar more accessible for businesses, utilities, and homeowners.

“What we had were a lot of barriers — barriers that stood in our way when it came to solar energy,’’ she said. Comparing the state to neighboring North Carolina and Georgia, both ranked in the top 10 for solar generation, she said “they don’t have any more sun than we do. So the goal is to always make sure, what are we doing? Never be satisfied, but what are we doing to move the ball forward.”

At the same time that she’s trying to make progress on solar, Gov. Haley is labeling the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon emissions — which will help accelerate the shift to renewables — as economy-hurting mandates that get in the way of many of the state’s businesses which are “already green friendly anyways,” according to her.

The governor has not explicitly denied climate change nor has she actually called the EPA’s proposal illegal — which it has been shown not to be numerous times. However, this week South Carolina joined a lawsuit to sue the EPA along with a number of other coal-reliant states in an attempt to stop the rules. In joining the lawsuit, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said “this regulatory action by the EPA is bad all the way around.”

The Supreme Court has ruled several times that the EPA is allowed to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. In addition, Gov. Haley seems to understand that even without the carbon regulations, coal is facing strong headwinds in the state. Yet the Republican platform won’t allow for any such acknowledgements in a hard-fought and extremely divisive election year.

Currently South Carolina gets 57 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and 25 percent from coal with the rest coming from natural gas or renewable sources. The EPA’s proposed cuts for the state’s carbon emissions are 51 percent by 2030, the bulk of which will come from the addition of two nuclear plants. According to the the Conservation Voters and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, the state has already cut emissions by about 30 percent since 2005. While South Carolina still relies on coal power for a quarter of its power, about half a dozen or so of the older plants are already closed or in the process of closing.

South Carolina’s existing coal plants will also be subject to the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which limits the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution that power plants in 27 eastern states are allowed to emit. According to the EPA, air from South Carolina coal-fired power plants contributes to air pollution in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The EPA estimates that cracking down on cross-state coal emissions will prevent 970 deaths each year in South Carolina.

Gov. Haley’s office did not respond immediately to questions.