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Going solar: United Methodists, others champion new S.C. bill to allow third-party sales of solar energy

By Jessica Connor 

A coalition of church, business, environmental and other groups across South Carolina—including a handful of United Methodists—are championing state legislation to make it legal to buy solar energy from non-utilities.

Retired United Methodist pastor the Rev. Wiley Cooper and other United Methodists are among those advocating the bill, which would enable churches, schools, nonprofits, military bases, businesses and private individuals to lease solar from private finance companies like Charleston s InterTech Group or DSC.

S.C. House Bill 3425, The Energy System Freedom of Ownership Act, was introduced earlier this year, but it has stalled in the House after Rep. Bill Sandifer (R-Oconee) asked the Public Utilities Review Committee to analyze the bill and report back.

However, the Senate companion bill, S 536, was introduced March 19 with 14 bipartisan senators supporting it as of the Advocate s press time. Sen. Greg Gregory (R-Lancaster) is lead sponsor. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Gregory is a member.

We are hopeful in moving this bill through Judiciary to the Senate floor for debate, and hopefully back to the House before May 1, the date when a bill originating in one body must be received in the other body for the bill to receive normal consideration for that year’s legislative session,  said Ryan Black of the Coastal Conservation League, an environmental group strongly advocating the bill.

The state s utilities are calling for heavy study before lawmakers consider passing any energy-related bill.

Cooper and other United Methodists are crossing their fingers the bill passes, viewing solar energy as a way Christians can be better stewards of God s earth.

In Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus statements, the Gospels and everything in between, including Paul, human beings are created in God s image, which means our job is to help complete creation and to preserve creation. It s not to be God s demolition squad,  Cooper said. God owns the earth, we don t, and God has given us responsibility for preserving and caring for it. 

If there is an opportunity for us to enhance that creation, or stop some of the earth s demolition by using the more eco-friendly solar, then we must do so, Cooper said, urging people to contact their legislators and ask them to support the bill.

Solar and the church “ why?

Solar energy involves using energy from the sun, harnessed through various technologies such as solar panels. Solar advocates say it is now as cheap as regular electricity and an eco-friendly renewable resource that decreases dependency on imported uranium for nuclear power and fossil fuels like coal.

Typically, churches and others who wish to use solar energy rely on solar panels, which require a large upfront investment. While prices have recently dropped significantly, it still costs about $20,000-$30,000 for panels for a typical house. For a church such as Washington Street United Methodist Church, Columbia, which Cooper attends, that cost is far more.

Columbia College, one of four United Methodists higher education institutions in the state, have used solar panels for student dormitories and the college s athletic center since 2011 thanks to a $193,000 federal energy grant. Rebecca B. Munnerlyn of Columbia College said the panels serve as a great example of the technology applied to existing buildings in an urban setting.

Incorporating solar technology into both residential settings and our athletics center introduced sustainable ˜green energy into the everyday lives of our students,  Munnerlyn said. The thermal water-heating systems supported by the solar panels provide a long-term energy savings for the college and reduce our carbon footprint. 

Private individuals and businesses who are committed to solar and have the funds to buy solar panels can do so, and then recoup their upfront costs via reduced energy bills and by taking advantage of available tax breaks. But schools, churches, the military and other nonprofits don t pay taxes, so they have no ability to use tax credits. They have to pay in full for the solar panels, which is out of the question for most of these groups, who often are cash-strapped, operate year to year and don t have the capital to invest in long-term energy.

Washington Street UMC and several other churches stumbled upon what they thought was a perfect solution, Cooper said: they planned to lease energy from a private company, DCS Energy, which was going to provide free solar panels to the church, and then sell the church the electricity.

These private companies see this as a win-win, Black said: They have a tax burden, so they get a modest return and a valuable tax benefit, and the church gets the electricity it needs for a reduced, fixed price. In about a decade, after the lease runs its course, the church gets to keep the solar panels and have that renewable energy source for the remaining life of the panels

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