South Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio continues to grow, despite a nationwide loss of jobs in the solar industry.

A new report from The Solar Foundation shows that the Palmetto State’s solar industry experienced a 2.1 percent increase in employment last year. The state now ranks 24th nationwide in solar energy generation, with 2,829 jobs.

Nationally, solar employment declined 3.8 percent, but solar jobs increased in 29 states, according to the report. That includes North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and numerous other states throughout the Southeast. California leads the nation in jobs, with 86,414, and Massachusetts is a distant second, with 11,530.

Overall, solar accounts for 1.9 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, but the industry is the third highest employer in the energy sector. In South Carolina, Spartanburg and Greenville remain the top counties for solar employment.

The report shows that there were 707 solar jobs in Spartanburg and 486 solar jobs in Greenville last year. A majority of the jobs created locally were in installation, manufacturing, and project development.

South Carolina’s solar industry has experienced rapid growth in recent years, largely due to the Distributed Energy Resource Program Act, according to Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The act, which was passed by the House and Senate in 2014, allows the state’s electric utility companies to recover expenses incurred to install solar panels. In 2015, Duke Energy announced that it was offering rebates to South Carolina customers to help offset the initial costs of installing solar on their property.

The program offers $1 per watt for customers who install systems up to 20 kilowatts on their property and for businesses that install systems up to 1 megawatt. More than 750 residential customers and 35 businesses have applied for solar rebates since 2015, creating more than 30 megawatts of solar power and $5 million in rebates.

In 2017, for instance, Glen Raven Inc., a North Carolina-based fabric manufacturing and marketing company, constructed a $2 million solar farm at its Sunbrella manufacturing center in Anderson County. The company should receive a payback in less than five years through the Duke Energy rebate program, said Edmund Gant, sustainable development manager at Glen Raven Custom Fabrics.

Furman University also signed up for the program and built a $1.7 million solar farm on about 6 acres along Poinsett Highway in northern Greenville County. The 743-kilowatt project is the largest solar installation on a college campus in South Carolina. Duke Energy plans to issue a $997,000 rebate to the university.

Duke Energy is now looking to grow its renewable energy portfolio in the Palmetto State from 2 MW in 2016 to at least 110 MW by 2021. “Renewable energy will continue to be a growing part of our generation mix in the future,” said Cari Boyce, vice president of policy, sustainability, and stakeholder strategy, in a news release.

South Carolina is expected to add more than 1,500 megawatts of solar energy to its grid over the next five years, but the state is nearing a 2 percent limit set on peak rooftop solar electricity generation, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Bret Sowers, chairman of the S.C. Solar Business Alliance, said the state could lose more than 3,000 jobs in the coming years if the cap isn’t removed. Failing to remove the cap could also make it more expensive for residents to afford solar panels.

Sowers said South Carolina’s solar industry “has never been provided an opportunity to create a sustainable business model due to the 2 percent cap.”

“Our state wouldn’t be able to attract some of the big companies we have today if we told them they only had three years to sell their product here. That’s what the solar industry is dealing with now,” said Sowers, who is also vice president of development and strategy at Charleston-based solar company Southern Current.

Earlier this month, the House voted 61-44 in favor of a bill known as the Energy Consumer Bill of Rights Act that would remove the cap, but opposing lawmakers used legislative rules to force a two-thirds final vote, rather than a simple majority. Now, with the bill dead in the House, the chances of similar legislation passing this year are unlikely, according to Sowers.

Sowers and other solar proponents said lawmakers who killed the bill likely did so out of allegiance to Duke Energy and SCANA, the state’s largest power providers. Lawmakers, however, say donations from utilities didn’t affect their decision.

Power companies, their subsidiaries, and their employees have contributed at least $2.6 million to the campaigns of more than 320 South Carolina lawmakers and statewide candidates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Duke Energy and SCANA vehemently opposed the bill, arguing that it would force their customers without solar to subsidize homeowners with solar panels. Utilities, however, are also expected to lose more than $1 million a year over the next couple of years to South Carolina’s growing rooftop solar market, according to Sowers.

“The utilities are struggling to figure out how they can compete with solar and still make money with an infrastructure system that’s already built out,” Sowers said. “That’s how this whole thing happened. They don’t know how to control the solar industry.”

He added that utilities make a guaranteed return on infrastructure, which they charge their customers to construct. Solar power, however, reduces the overall demand for electricity and the infrastructure to produce it, causing utilities to lose money.

Duke Energy, which services much of the Upstate, declined to comment on the claim that it donates to politicians to buy influence at the State House.

“Perhaps you should ask the solar industry the same question,” company spokesman Ryan Mosier responded in an email to the Upstate Business Journal.

Solar company executives, in fact, have also donated to South Carolina lawmakers.

The State, for instance, reported last year that Gov. Henry McMaster, who is running for re-election this year, has raised a minimum of $49,000 from solar companies looking to expand access to solar energy on rooftops and in solar farms. That includes Sowers and his business partner, Jon Downey, who have donated $14,000 combined.

Mosier added that the bill would have required power companies to “offer rooftop solar to customers at a subsidized, anti-competitive rate at the same time it prevented utilities from recovering costs.”

“This is not about utilities protecting profits,” he said. “It’s about having a fair system.”

Mosier said Duke Energy supports “a reasonable path forward to continue to grow solar energy in South Carolina.”

“Let’s create common-sense legislation that is fair and balances the interests of all who call South Carolina home — solar providers, energy companies, and customers who use solar energy and those who do not,” he said.

The solar bill’s failure to pass through the House, however, will likely have immediate effects if an alternative solution can’t be found, according to Sowers. Companies, for instance, may soon have to cut their sales staff or market to other states.

Sowers said companies would likely relocate their sales staff to North Carolina, which is ranked second nationwide in solar generation, or Georgia, which is expected to gain more than 2,000 megawatts of solar energy to its grid over the next five years.

Greenville-based developer Summit Solar, which offers residential and commercial solar services, is considering an expansion to Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, and other maturing markets, according to CEO Josh Williams.

Williams added that the company, which currently offers services in South Carolina and North Carolina, was planning to add about 100 jobs by this time next year. But now it may have to reduce its staff from 40 people to 20 people.

Luckily, a number of bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that may help bolster the state’s solar industry in the wake of defeat, according to Sowers. That includes S.890, also known as the Energy Freedom Act.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the proposed legislation “would require our state’s large utilities to buy wholesale power from independent power producers if, but only if, it is proved that those producers could build the power cheaper, and would require those utilities to then pass on the resulting savings to consumers.”

Sowers said the bill would likely create a significant number of jobs in the solar industry and make South Carolina more attractive to developers like Cypress Creek, which already has about 280 megawatts worth of solar projects in the state.

“This bill would allow companies to sell their electricity into an open marketplace without deregulating the entire state and removing the utilities out of the equation,” Sowers said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

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