The Big News: The Conservation Bank is now permanent, we have a new Utility Ratepayer Consumer Advocate and a degree of utility regulatory reform; we have a new DHEC emergency fund for landfill issues, more control over construction and demolition debris recycling, a better Litter Control bill, a great Solar Habitat program, and we defeated the assault on home rule for local plastic bag bans.
The Bad News: The auto-stay provision that protected citizens and the environment from irreparable harm while challenged permits are in review, was significantly weakened and the utilities killed an extension of solar net-metering for residential rooftop systems.
- The South Carolina Conservation Bank is near and dear to Upstate Forever's heart. This efficient tool has facilitated the protection of many beloved Upstate special places, including Lake Conestee Nature Park, part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, Stump House Tunnel, much of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and even Spartanburg County School District 6's innovative farm-to-school project Cragmoor Farms. On May 18, after an absolutely incredible collaborative effort by conservation organizations, individuals and legislators statewide, the Bank finally became a permanent fixture when Governor McMaster signed Act 200 into law. The Bank would have "sunset" - it would have gone away - on June 30 if this effort had not been successful. We offer our immense gratitude to everyone involved.
- One of Upstate Forever's policy priorities this year was the re-establishment of a Utility Ratepayer Consumer Advocate - an office that will exclusively represent the interests of residential and small business consumers in utility issues before the Public Service Commission. We have been without one for years. This, coupled with a conflicted mission at the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) to look out for both ratepayers and utility profits (at the same time!) has resulted in a regulatory environment that heavily favors the utilities. This was clearly demonstrated by how little resistance there was to the nine SCE&G rate increases associated with the V.C. Summer nuclear units (as well as how little scrutiny there was of the construction process until failure was inevitable). After failing to finalize action on numerous energy issues until the last minute, the Legislature finally passed H. 4375 at the end of June. An article summarizing the dramatic process that brought us to this point can be found here. This bill lowers rates for SCE&G customers (challenged by SCE&G and awaiting a ruling) but it also firms up the definitions of "prudent" and "imprudent" utility investments, resolves the problems in ORS' mission, gives ORS subpoena power, and re-establishes a dedicated Utility Ratepayer Consumer Advocate to be housed in the Department of Consumer Affairs. These policy changes, combined with continued scrutiny by Upstate Forever and our conservation partners across the state, will help lead us to more investment in efficiency as well as clean renewable energy and storage as prices continue to fall while technology improves.
- Greenville Representative Chandra Dillard sponsored a bill that creates an emergency fund (without adding new fees or taxes) that DHEC can use in the event of another situation like the landfill fire in Chester in 2014 and 2015. If toxic fumes are being released but a responsible party isn't immediately available, DHEC will have these funds to step in and take immediate action. The bill, H. 4644, also establishes certain conditions for facilities that recycle construction and demolition debris so that they do not become, essentially, open landfills. The bill is the result of a DHEC stakeholder group that included Upstate Forever as well as other non-profits, industry, and local governments.
- Litter is a common complaint in South Carolina but what many may not know is that the penalty for littering had been so high that law enforcement was hesitant to write tickets, or when they did, judges threw the citation out. Basically, the punishment didn't fit the crime. The Litter Bill, H. 4458, makes the fines more appropriate and makes it easier for communities to enforce litter and dumping ordinances.
- The Solar Habitat Bill, H. 4875, is where renewable energy meets species conservation. This bill creates a voluntary vegetative management standard through DNR that large-scale solar energy sites could use to plant native species that attract song birds, game birds, and pollinators. The voluntary program also helps control stormwater runoff at solar installations.
- Finally, the "plastic bag ban-ban" bill, H. 3529, was an industry bill that would have ignored home rule (setting a dangerous precedent) by prohibiting communities from passing ordinances that restrict the use of single-use plastice bags. This has been an important issue for coastal communities as they see first-hand the impact that these bags have on sea birds, sea turtles, and other marine wildlife. This bill nearly passed but simply ran out of time. We are certain it will be back and it will still be a bad idea. Communities should be allowed to design local solutions to local problems. This is the fundamental concept behind home rule.
- The weakening of the Automatic Stay provision through S. 105 is a significant rollback of citizen protection. This provision within the DHEC permitting process allowed for a project that could have damaging consequences to be "paused" while the impacts are reviewed and evaluated in more depth. This regulatory rollback passed by about a 2-1 margin in both the House and the Senate. Upstate Forever invoked the auto-stay provision rarely and judiciously, and we are very disappointed at the level of support for this bill and have serious concerns about future implications.
- Finally, utility lobbying was able to directly halt all efforts to increase the residential solar net metering cap, even on a temporary basis. First, H. 4421, which had majority support, was torpedoed at the last minute on a procedural issue. Then a budget proviso that would have only increased the cap for one year while a permanent solution was sought was eliminated behind closed doors during budget negotiations. Duke Energy has now annouced that net metering for new customers in the Upstate will officially end on July 31. Read more about the effect that reaching the net metering cap will have here in this July 11 article from The State. While efforts are underway to address how to value the energy that rooftop solar contributes to the grid, that process will take a great deal of time and debate. Upstate Forever is a part of the stakeholder group organized by ORS to continue this work and we will continue to look out for the interests of Upstate residents.
One last note: many in the Upstate have followed the offshore drilling debate. After all, it's our coastline too. Essentially, on this issue, nothing happened this year at the Statehouse level. There was a great deal of discussion - but no action either pro or con. The same goes for offshore wind - no action. There was also no action on additional dam safety reform.
There is MUCH more work to be done next year starting in January of 2019. Upstate Forever will continue to be your watchdog. If you would like to receive a weekly Legislative Update from me when the Legislature is in session next year, please subscribe here.