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Q&A: Republican seeks to build on South Carolina’s solar momentum

Former four-term South Carolina Congressman Gresham Barrett is joining with Sunrun to launch the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition.

Their over-arching goal is to build on the momentum generated by the industry’s rapid growth spawned by unanimous passage in 2014 of “Act 236” by the South Carolina legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Nicki Haley. That law allows for solar sales by third parties and enables net metering.

According to the most recent census of verifiable solar jobs in South Carolina, the state accounts for about 1,764 solar installation, manufacturing, sales, distribution and project development jobs. How the industry continues to grow may depend on a collaborative effort it has forged thus far with utilities and whether the federal solar Investment Tax Credit survives a review by the next Congress and President-elect Donald Trump. A push for another solar-friendly law in the state legislature is underway.

Barrett, who also serves as Pastor of LifePoint Church in Greenville, South Carolina, spoke with Southeast Energy News about the initiative.

Southeast Energy News: How do you see building on solar’s gains in South Carolina going forward?

Barrett: In just a few years’ time, South Carolina has become a leader for solar energy growth in the South. In fact, in 2015 South Carolina was ranked number one in solar capacity growth, and number two in solar job growth in the United States.

This movement is a result of an open and collaborative process with utilities, policymakers, and key industry stakeholders coming together to support a smart solar program in the state. We will look to continue this collaborative process, working with utilities like South Carolina Electric & Gas and Duke Energy, to make sure homeowners are not taxed at a higher rate because they choose to go solar while also working with businesses and utilities to continue South Carolina’s highly successful net metering policy.

How might you work with Gov. Haley to achieve more gains for solar?

In 2014, South Carolina’s Legislature unanimously passed, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law, common-sense solar energy policy – including net metering and allowing for third party leasing – that created hundreds of good jobs in just one year. Thanks to Gov. Haley and leaders in the State House, South Carolina has become a state on the move when it comes to giving people the chance to produce their own power. Our state needs to continue to lead on this issue and push for the removal of any barriers.

Why, as you say, are so many countries significantly ahead of the U.S. on solar? How much of that responsibility rests with federal and state lawmakers? How about utilities in the South Carolina and the Southeast?

One of the reasons I am so passionate about solar is because of the time I have spent in Africa. This is a place starting from ground zero. The people of Africa have latched on to the idea that distributed, locally produced energy can not only provide a reliable source of power, but also good quality, much-needed jobs for their people.

People want solar. Rooftop solar enjoys strong bipartisan support – including 85% of the general public and 84% of Republicans. The Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition will look to work with utilities and policymakers to make these voices heard.

Walk us through the specific roles you see the Coalition serving next year and within five years?

Conservatives want the freedom to choose how they get their energy. Our coalition will work to provide solutions to critical issues facing utilities and solar companies in South Carolina. I am hoping to address a wide range of issues including protecting common sense, economy-growing, policies like net metering, and working to ensure that there is no tax increase on South Carolina homes and businesses that produce their own energy. We will also work ensure homeowners associations and solar businesses are working together to help consumers. Finding resolutions will expand access to solar, growth the economy, and create jobs all across the state.

Summarize SB 626 and project how it might pass in the upcoming legislative session.

Last year, policymakers attempted to pass a bill (SB 626) that would protect homeowners and businesses from a tax on solar. The bill passed through the House, but ran out of time during the last legislative session after it stalled in the Senate. No successful solar energy market in the country assesses property taxes on families and businesses who choose to produce their own power with solar. We can’t allow South Carolina to be the first to tax good jobs out of the state. We will work hard with a large group of stakeholders from across the state to get it across the finish line next year.

Given how Act 236 has spurred significant solar growth, what would you tell policymakers in Virginia, Florida and other states about third-party suppliers? How about net metering?

Gov. Haley noted while signing Act 236, “we are now removing a lot of barriers that were there before and making it easier to have solar projects in the state of South Carolina.” This historic move was a team effort with utilities, businesses, policymakers, and regulators that led to record solar growth … and more energy independence in the state. States should embrace policies that enable more solar, not ones that limit it …Utilities and solar companies achieved compromise by gradually incorporating innovative rate design solutions that work with net metering, like time-of-use rates and minimum bills,that resulted in a win for consumers and electricity providers alike.

Whom do you see joining the Coalition and what roles could they serve?

We envision a variety of dedicated coalition members. The Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition will embrace any person or group that is dedicated to promoting the removal of barriers to solar businesses and applying free market principles to help further energy independence with solar energy in South Carolina. This will include faith groups, local and national solar companies that are creating good jobs for the state, tax reform groups, and a wide-range of current and former public officials that believe in promoting the value of solar energy to South Carolina.

How has your time as a church stewardship director and pastor prepared you for this role as titular head of the Coalition?

I have dedicated my life to spreading the word of God. After leaving public office, I have been blessed with the opportunity to spend more time preaching gospel and making human connections that will stick with me forever. As Christians, we recognize the biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and protect our children’s future. Clean energy is good for public health. Energy independence will protect our soldiers from foreign wars. It’s no longer possible to deny one of God’s greatest gifts: the sun.

What role is Sunrun serving in the Coalition?

Sunrun, just like the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition, is dedicated to helping folks across the state have choice when it comes to energy. They are also a case study for the economic potential associated with smart solar policy. They had one employee in South Carolina at the beginning of 2015. After Governor Haley took down the barriers, they created an additional 150+ jobs virtually overnight.

If given the opportunity, what would you tell Donald Trump’s energy and / or economic advisers about solar? How might your friendship with Mike Pence earn President Trump’s ear on solar?

Mike Pence is a dear friend of mine and I am delighted to see him representing our country as Vice President. My organization is mostly focused on state-level policy and enabling South Carolina to maximize the benefits of solar. That said, I will tell anyone that will listen, including President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence, about the bright future our country has with solar energy.

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