Eco-Stories: Rebecca Haynes – Conservation Voters of South Carolina

Eco-Stories: Rebecca Haynes – Conservation Voters of South Carolina

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. See the full interview below.

Rebecca Haynes, Deputy Director of CVSC

Rebecca has over fifteen years of experience working on water policy in South Carolina with communities, utilities, and agencies, most recently at the SC Dept. of Health and Environmental Control and American Rivers. A University of Georgia graduate, Rebecca holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, a Certificate in Environmental Ethics, and a Master of Science in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development. She is also active in the community as Founding Chair and former Board Member of the NoMa Bark Park, Past President of the Earlewood Community Citizens Organization, and a devoted “big” with Big Brothers Big Sisters. She spends her free time playing outside with her husband, son, and two dogs.

This interview was recorded on May 1, 2020.


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Fiona Martin (FM):

Welcome, Rebecca. Today, we have Rebecca Haynes, the Deputy Director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina with us for The Eco-Interviews. How are you doing today, Rebecca?

Rebecca Haynes (RH):

I'm doing well. It's Friday, thank goodness.


It is Friday, and we're right in the middle of COVID-19, so we're doing a nice social distancing podcast and video, which is the norm these days. But I'm excited to be able to speak to you, even amongst all this craziness, and I'd love to start with you introducing yourself. Tell us a bit about how you got into working for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, and then an overview of the mission of the group.


Sure thing. Well, my name is RH. I'm the Deputy Director at Conservation Voters of South Carolina. I have been at the organization since 2013. I've been working in the environmental policy field for about 15 years, more or less. I was actually recruited over to South Carolina DHEC, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, out of grad school, and that was how I ended up in South Carolina. I thought I'd stick around South Carolina a couple of years after coming here from Atlanta, and it stuck. So, I did some watershed management work, and Clean Water Act work at South Carolina DHEC. That's my safe space -- playing with water policy. I went from DHEC to American Rivers, which is a national environmental organization that focuses on water protection, river protection, water quality, and I worked there for a couple of years. They have an office here in Columbia.

And then, it was while I was at American Rivers that I got to know Conservation Voters of South Carolina a little bit better, and it was a really intriguing organization to me because, at American Rivers for instance, I was really just doing advocacy work in regard to commenting on permits and engaging in the regulatory process, but I wasn't doing a lot with elected officials. And Conservation Voters was really leading the way in South Carolina in terms of interacting with elected officials at the South Carolina State House, affecting legislative change, and holding legislators accountable for their actions. I was really drawn to that kind of work.

So I was able to transition over to Conservation Voters in 2013. I started out as the Government Relations Director, and I'm still a registered lobbyist for the organization. And I've really, really enjoyed lobbying. I never thought ... I have a Master's in Conservation Ecology. I'm a scientist. I really never saw myself lobbying legislators to make policy change, but I've really enjoyed working in that space. And so, at Conservation Voters, we do three things.

We educate, we advocate, and we elect. We're a unique environmental organization in the conservation community in South Carolina. We were actually created to serve the purpose of being the political face of the environmental community in South Carolina. We are a traditional nonprofit, but we also have a political nonprofit, so for those of you that like tax law ... We're a 501(c)(3) and we have a 501(c)(4), and we have a political action committee so we can hold elected leaders accountable in different ways than your traditional nonprofit.

We have lobbyists and we have a legislative scorecard that we publish at the end of every two-year legislative session that shares the scores of legislators on who's with voters. We use our political action committee to endorse candidates and to play a role in campaigns and elections, so we have a political team. And then we also educate, out of our 501(c)(3), out of our traditional nonprofit. We educate voters, we educate legislators, we educate anyone who's willing to listen about current environmental issues. We also coordinate with our partners in the environmental space in South Carolina, so we provide the administrative support for the South Carolina Conservation Coalition, which is a coalition of about 40 environmental organizations in South Carolina. Some of them are staffed, larger nonprofits, some of them are small, volunteer-led. We try to give everyone a voice, particularly at the South Carolina State House, make sure we're coordinated, we're working in the same direction, know where everyone wants to put their priority work into, and I think it's really helped us to strengthen our power, particularly at the state legislature.

Now, Conservation Voters ... We also track federal issues, particularly as they relate to what our state goals are. So when the goals have common interests, we try to make sure we're working on it at both the state and federal level. We also continue to maintain good relationships with our federal delegation, particularly when you have state legislators that then transition over to Congress. We keep up those relationships. From an electoral standpoint, we only work at the state level. We only work on state elections, so we don't really work on county council, city council race, mayoral races. We work on governors, governor races. We work on state legislative seats. We do not make any endorsements or work on anything federally. We do have federal partners at the League of Conservation Voters. They're our partners in this space. We're not a chapter of that organization, but we're friends. We stay in touch, and they really handle the federal side of it.

And so, when we're working on federal issues, we coordinate with them, but they handle federal electoral, and we handle state electoral activities. So it's been a lot of fun from a perspective as a scientist who's passionate about environmental protection. I can see change in action. I can directly affect state legislative and policy outcomes, which is fun. I don't think you can get that in a lot of other organizations. So Conservation Voters has just been a really, really great journey.


Fantastic. That's a great overview of how it fits into the ecosystem. And something that you didn't mention but is highlighted on the website is that it's a nonpartisan organization, correct?


Yeah. I actually prefer to use the term bipartisan, because we fully embrace both political parties that are active in South Carolina. So we endorse on both sides of the aisle in elections. We work with both sides of the aisle when we work on legislative outcomes. And I feel very passionate about working across the aisle in these issues. We actually ... In South Carolina, this is a Republican majority state, and if we did not have Republican champions working on environmental issues, we would not have the success rate that we do have. And so, I really value those champions. I love the fact that so many of our state legislators consider conservation and environmental work to be a bipartisan thing, and they support that. So that's one of the lovely parts about working in South Carolina.


That's fantastic. One of the stereotypes of South Carolina is that we are a bit behind the times, and I have to admit that I sometimes think that as well, even though I grew up in South Carolina. Sometimes we're a little bit behind the eightball on things. Is this the case when it comes to environmental issues? And what areas do you think need the most improvement? And then if there's some big wins you can highlight, that would be great as well.


Yeah, we've seen ... Especially since we came on the scene in the early 2000s, we've definitely seen a steady increase in an environmental ethic within particularly the state legislature, but also with voters, and I think that has resulted in positive environmental legislation and policies being enacted or protections staying steady. There have been a few different things I think I would highlight as successes.

For instance, at its core, being a conservationist is also fairly conservative, right? You're wanting to protect natural resources, and use them efficiently, and well. It's much more expensive if we have to clean up pollution rather than prevent it, for instance. So a lot of South Carolinians are outdoorsmen. We love playing outside. We value the beautiful places in South Carolina. We even have a strong tourism economy because other people want to come here and visit it. People want to enjoy the natural resources that we want to protect. So I think our legislators care a lot about, for instance, land protection. We've seen some fantastic land protection policies occur throughout the state. So for instance, legislators created the Conservation Bank about a decade ago, which is a state agency that works to protect private and public lands and make sure they don't turn over into development. So, incentivizing land protection, which is just a fantastic program.

We've also seen legislators come out strong on issues like offshore drilling. They didn't actually get around to be able to vote on the offshore drilling bills this legislative session because we were cut short due to the pandemic, but we had a majority of legislators in both the House and the Senate, led by Republican champions from the coast, introduce legislation this year that definitively said, "We as a state want to do everything we can to stop offshore drilling from occurring off our coast." And so they introduced legislation that would limit the ability of the onshore infrastructure to occur. So the piece of that formula that South Carolina has control over, related to offshore drilling, they wanted to protect us as best they could. There is still a temporary ban on that kind of infrastructure in South Carolina, because they were able to pass temporary measures while we worked on permanent legislation. So hopefully when we come back in 2021, we can see more progress on that front.

There's also our legislature ... We like to say we have a solar majority, particularly in the House. Our legislators care deeply about clean energy and the future of clean energy in South Carolina, because not only does clean energy help us from an air quality perspective, from a pollution, climate change perspective, but also, it's more affordable. It makes sense for customers and rate payers to have clean energy options, to have market marketplace options. And so that's something in 2019, particularly in wake of the V.C. Summer debacle, the legislature unanimously passed the Energy Freedom Act, which broke down some of the existing market and regulatory obstacles and allowed renewables to compete in the energy marketplace. So that was really, really fun legislation. And we are working on even more clean energy policy work as a result of that. So, the amount of legislators that come to Conservation Voters regularly and say, "I want to do more on this. Help me do more on this," is really fun and exciting.

Even just this year we had so much positive conservation legislation get introduced. Everything from ... There was a bill that passed the House and is now waiting in the Senate to pass that tried to regulate the illegal wildlife trade related to reptiles and amphibians. So everything from protecting native South Carolina wildlife to addressing additional land protection goals. So trying to push the state even further in protecting more and more land. So it's really fun to see that, and legislators from both sides of the aisle come to us with that.

Now, there is a weak spot. It's always good to identify where you have room for improvement. There are two weak spots. First off, I would say that a lot of legislators do care deeply about particularly the negative impacts of climate change they see occurring in their districts. Like if you're talking to legislators in flood-prone areas, if you're talking to legislators along the coast, they are seeing the impact of climate change on their district. But we have not seen a wholehearted effort by the legislature yet to directly tackle the issue. They're tackling the issue through things like clean energy legislation, which is a huge step forward, but we could do more there. There's an opportunity to push for more and more action to address climate change.

The other weak spot is sometimes we're faced with what we call regulatory rollbacks. So, attempts to roll back environmental laws and protections. This is where it gets pretty wonky. All the sudden we become environmental law experts and we're trying to protect permitting programs, or legal protections in a court of law, giving citizens the opportunities to protect their private property from the impacts of neighboring pollution, for instance. Those types of legislative attempts to roll back those protections occur fairly regularly. Sometimes we succeed in pushing those attempts back, and making sure we're protecting those environmental laws, and sometimes we fail. And those are sometimes the most divisive fights we see up at the State House. Sometimes they can get more partisan because the argument often devolves into, "Do you care about environmental protection, or do you care about jobs and economic development, and industry growth?" And that's an unfair position to be in, because we can and we should have both. We shouldn't settle for bad actors in industry, and we shouldn't settle for bad economic development.

There was one rural Republican from the Upstate one time, and he has since retired, but we were speaking about a rollback, and he said, "But Becca, my constituents shouldn't have to feel like they have to choose between economic development and having clean air and water." And that's a very true statement. We shouldn't put our residents in that position. We should be able to protect them and give them jobs. And we should and can deserve and require more. So that's something that I continue to push legislators to show more courage and independence on those issues. I think that's when you really differentiate strong legislators from weaker elected officials, when they can make the hard and sometimes unpopular decisions. So there are some rooms for improvement, but overall, I'm very proud of the actions the state legislature has taken to protect our environment.


That's incredibly encouraging. We need to certainly get that message out. I think there's some good highlights in there. As you mentioned, South Carolinians are outdoors people. We like to be out on our beaches, and our mountains, and our lakes, fishing, hunting, and that is certainly something I find that everyone can join together in and is this enjoyment of the outdoors and hopefully protecting it. And it was very interesting and poignant for you to bring up this incorrect dichotomy of saving the environment or economic growth. I think, as you very well stated, that that isn't the right choice. Solar is a way forward not just for the environment, but it's also more economically feasible and cheaper in the long run. So hopefully we can continue to educate and get those choices ... Change that from being a choice and that being that either/or. Why can't we have both? Why can't we ask for all of it? Incredibly good.

So, how is South Carolina uniquely affected by climate change? You mentioned the coast a bit, but we do have listeners from all over the world that might not be familiar with South Carolina in particular in climate change.


We're seeing it in different ways in different parts of the state. I think the coast gets more attention because the rising sea level is going to be an increasing issue. Each year, we argue about how and whether or not to engineer our coast or try to engineer our way out of rising sea levels. I'm a firm believer that water will find a way, and the best path is just to back up. That is an ongoing discussion. But that flooding discussion ... The discussion of, what do we do when we have more water whether from more frequent and harsher extreme weather events ... So here in Columbia, where I am, we've had some pretty historic flooding events in the last decade that, I think, shocked everyone. And in the Upstate, too, as we build more in the path of water, that has a potential to be a bigger and bigger danger. So that's an interesting thing, as the landscape is changing and as we have a changing climate that will affect weather patterns, that will affect flooding, that will affect these sorts of things, how do we continue to grow and build in the right places? So I think that's going to be an ongoing discussion, particularly for the coast, Midlands, and Upstate. There are different problems in each of them, but some of the themes are the same.

I think, particularly, we are going to see really abnormal weather patterns, whether we see increased drought ... I know our farmers who really struggled with just harsher extremes, so if we're having too little water, and having too much water are both really bad for our agricultural economy, and so that's something we've also seen throughout the state, and I know is going to be actually a big discussion as we move forward, especially as we try to rebuild our economy in a post-pandemic life. So those are some of the impacts. I think the hard part is if people aren't directly experiencing it, getting them to see that it's a problem for everyone I think will be one of the hardest tasks. And so, that's why legislators that are on the front lines of climate change impacts are going to have to be leaders in this. And that is where it generally does fall on the coast.

We did an analysis of some of our legislative scores on votes, our scorecard a few years ago, and it was interesting. If I have a choice between mountains and coast, I'm a mountains girl. I love escaping to the mountains. I think that's God's country. But it's interesting. The environmental ethic of legislators and where they act and where they vote ... It tends to be stronger in the Lowcountry. Almost all of the conservation-minded legislators are in the Lowcountry. The Midlands is in the middle, and the Upstate is generally pretty weak on their conservation scores. That's something we've been trying to figure out. Where is that connection lost? Is there less of a connection to our outdoor economy or our natural resources? What is it that falls apart there? And I'm not sure if we're also going to see that same connection with the discussion about who is most impacted by climate change.

Unfortunately, too, I think a lot of places that are seeing the impacts of climate change are communities of color, or lower income levels. You see inequity. We're already seeing, for instance, on the Charleston Peninsula and in the Charleston Metro Area, there's this concept of climate gentrification where you see interesting migration patterns of the people that can afford to move away from the flood-prone areas, or the areas that are getting the heaviest impact from extreme weather events, are able to, and then the people that can't afford to, can't. And then you see a real inequity in those communities. So addressing climate change is going to be about addressing the problems right at their source and addressing that environmental policy piece, but then also making sure that everyone else is at the table to address things like housing and development and those sorts of land use conversations as well.


Yeah. Wow. Super interesting. I didn't realize that Upstate was kind of checking out on it a little bit. And like you said, maybe it's because they don't feel it as much. Certainly our coasts - Charleston is a good example. Really, an international draw to South Carolina would be Charleston, and the peninsula is very much suffering from ... Or could be completely underwater in our lifetimes, which is pretty scary. And then I think the Midlands was definitely shocked into opening our eyes after the flood in October 2015. That really was an intense weather experience, and we do get more rain now. So maybe Upstate just hasn't, unfortunately, felt the pinch yet, which is a shame.

But going back to energy production, you mentioned that you have ... You called it a solar majority in the legislature. Is that correct? That was the term you used?


Yeah. We have a solar majority, meaning when we evaluate our scorecard and look at where legislators are voting, particularly ... The Senate, I think, has had a solar majority for a while, but the House ... The House is larger. You need more votes. And so, we have seen the growth of a solar majority, particularly since the V.C. Summer discussion between 2017 and 2018. I think it finally started to click for a lot of legislators that renewable energy is the cheaper, best path for utility customers, really, and for the state. And so we've just seen this really interesting transition there.

In 2019 when we passed the Energy Freedom Act, that was a completely Republican majority-led piece of legislation in both the House and Senate. It was not a bill about climate change, for instance. I don't think we mentioned that, ever in any of the messaging. It was about competition in the marketplace and how we can come up with the best energy sources that make sense for South Carolina. It gets back to when you cut out the noise of national rhetoric when it comes to environmental policy and you just get back to the common sense basics of how this can help our state, it really brought everybody together. I've never seen environmental legislation pass that unanimously in both the House and the Senate, which is really exciting.


Nice. I had a previous guest on, Dr. Colin Nolden, who is an energy policy wonk in the UK, and he explained the solar landscape there. I'm wondering if you can talk to us a little bit about the solar landscape here in South Carolina. I know just from a person on the street, we see lots of signs talking about free solar, and you see people putting up solar panels on their roof, but in terms of the actual nuts and bolts, what that means for the energy infrastructure, I'm not totally aware of that. And if you can talk a little bit about the Energy Freedom Act as well, because I'm not fully versed on what that allowed our energy markets to do in South Carolina.


To talk about the Energy Freedom Act, you really have to start with the first piece of solar legislation we did in 2014. Up until this point, South Carolina law was pretty strict about only power companies can produce and sell power. That's a short way of explaining it.


That's perfect. Make it simple.


So in 2014, we took the first attempt at starting to break down some of those obstacles to people being able to produce power on their property and sell it back to the utility and have that net metering relationship. So in 2014 ... This was pre-V.C. Summer ... The utilities still honestly had a lot of power at the legislature.


Let me just interrupt a little bit, and let's define V.C. Summer, because we've brought it up a few times.


True. Okay. So for those of you that maybe were tuned out during that time, the V.C. Summer ... When I refer to that debacle ... There's a fascinating ... If you want to go down a Google rabbit hole, the Post and Courier has a fascinating portal that compiles all of their reporting on V.C. Summer. So if you Google Post and Courier and V.C. Summer, you can access all the articles they wrote about it.

V.C. Summer was the expansion of a nuclear facility in Fairfield County, and it was going to be like, "Forget the stats." It was going to be one of the biggest ... It was the first new nuclear facility in a really long time because they are very expensive, the permitting is very intense. There were a lot of entities involved in this. The two main power companies that shared this project were SCE&G, which is now Dominion, and Santee Cooper, which is a state-owned utility in South Carolina. Their Santee Cooper customers mainly in kind of the north coast, in the Lowcountry area, and then Santee Cooper provides power to a lot of co-ops. So if you are a co-op customer, you may be getting your energy from Santee Cooper.

This was going to be the answer to all of our clean energy needs forever. We were going to be this massive producer of nuclear, and they were actually going to overbuild. They were going to build this massive nuclear facility. They based the Base Load Review Act, which was a piece of legislation that they passed about a decade ago that actually allowed the utility to start charging customers for the cost of building this new facility before it was built. So we, as utility customers ... I was an SCE&G customer, now a Dominion customer ... I was paying for this facility that was never actually going to give us any power. And it finally came to light, and I think it was the summer of 2017. It came to light that they were completely in over their heads. We were never going to get any power out of that facility. Westinghouse, or the organization that was on the ground was going bankrupt. They were pulling out of it. The utilities decided to pull out of the project. Basically, it was a mess. And so I think debacle is my favorite term to refer to it.

That's the short story of V.C. Summer, but what it did was it shook everything we knew about how we were going to generate power in South Carolina and it shed light on some of the unchecked power ... No pun intended ... Of the utilities, because all this time, the Public Service Commission had been approving these rate increases. The legislature had approved this Base Load Review Act that allowed this utility to recoup and just make money off of a project that was never going to actually give us any power. It really turned everything on its head. So, when legislators came back for the legislative session in January of 2018, they came back incensed. Their constituents were putting pressure on them to make sure this stuff got handled, that people were held accountable, etc. And out of that, we were able to say, "But you know what can work is renewables, and solar, and other clean energy sources." And these are cheaper anyway, than nuclear. Nuclear is super expensive. No matter how you feel about whether nuclear is clean or not, or the right energy generation source, it's way too expensive and not worth it.

And so, we were able to pivot to, "Why don't we invest more in solar?" And this isn't a situation where we need more subsidies or something for solar. No, no, no. The cost of solar has gone down enough that if you just break down some of the obstacles and regulatory infrastructure that the utility companies had created to make it so that solar could not compete with what they wanted to do ... If we break down some of those obstacles, solar can compete. And eventually, other things can compete. When wind is able to compete ... There are other renewables we can stack onto this portfolio. So we introduced legislation in 2018 to address all the different solar options, like for instance, the quickest, cheapest way to put solar on the grid is to do large-scale solar farms. Putting solar on your rooftop is fantastic for lowering your individual power bill and putting more renewables on the grid, but the cheapest, fastest way is to do large-scale solar installations.

So you kind of have three different buckets: you think about solar in terms of residential rooftop solar installation, solar panels on our rooftops. You also think about large-scale solar, which are like the solar farms you drive by on the highway, and sometimes those are owned by utilities, sometimes those are owned by large-scale solar companies. And then you have the commercial users. So, Google, they have a huge server down in Charleston and they need a lot of power to run that. So you've got the commercial and industrial users, and that has its own contract agreements and power purchase agreement structure behind it. So we wanted to be able to address all those different pieces and parts of what the solar and renewable industry kind of marketplace. We also wanted to make sure there were consumer protections put in place. Legislators quickly rolled back that Base Load Review Act that allowed utilities to charge customers before they saw a project be complete. And we didn't succeed in 2018. We made some headway on some fronts immediately, related to energy in South Carolina, but we didn't get the Energy Freedom Act passed until 2019, just because sometimes it just takes a while to get it perfect and work it out.

We still have room to go. We've made huge efforts in just establishing a fair marketplace, fair rates, structures, and boundaries back and forth between what utilities are paying the large-scale solar companies for the power they're producing on solar farms, for rooftop customers, for what they're producing, to make sure they're getting a fair and equitable rate. A layer that goes into this ... So, for the investor-owned utilities, like Dominion now ... SCE&G did not survive the V.C. Summer debacle. They were bought by Dominion. Dominion and Duke, for instance, are investor-owned utilities. They are regulated by the Public Service Commission. So an additional layer to this is the Public Service Commission is a seven-person body. They are elected by the General Assembly. They make a starting salary around $130,000 a year. It's a fascinating structure and really happens outside of the view of most voters. I did not know my legislators were voting on Public Service Commissioners before I really got into this.

So those commissioners, those incumbents, those commissioners that have been sitting on the Commission for years, and years, and years, have been approving everything that led to the V.C. Summer situation, approving all those rate increases. Well, they still have a part to play in approving these solar contract policies and things. So like the Energy Freedom Act set up the infrastructure for policy change, but the Public Service Commission has to implement those policy changes long term. So an added piece to that is legislators have been trying to reform the Public Service Commission. Before the pandemic, they were supposed to, this spring, be voting in potentially four new Public Service Commissioners. Four of the seven seats were up for election. And so that's still a thing that's hanging out there that we're eagerly awaiting to see when that election will take place. There was a really unprecedented amount of people that applied to serve on the commission this time around, and I think there's an opportunity for a lot of sea change.

So there's complicated layers to all of this, and at its core it's: how can we create a better system for competition that will ultimately drive down prices? We have some of the highest power bills in the country. So how can we also just take care of our citizens as well as producing cleaner power? The last layer to this, too, is that SCE&G didn't survive the V.C. Summer debacle. They were bought by Dominion. Santee Cooper got under the microscope as well, and they're a state-owned utility. The legislature before the pandemic had been discussing what the future of Santee Cooper would be, whether Santee Cooper would be massively reformed, or sold to an investor-owned utility, a utility like Dominion or Duke, one of those bigger companies, or what they would ultimately do with it. And that is also still now stuck in the ether, and they're trying to decide what they're going to do next on Santee Cooper. If Santee Cooper becomes an investor-owned utility, they will have to abide by the Energy Freedom Act. Either way, no matter the outcome ... For instance, we have been trying to push for Santee Cooper becoming a cleaner utility. They actually still have two coal-fired power plants in South Carolina. They have the lowest adoption of solar of the other utilities. They've been the least willing to play ball. And so there's a ton of opportunity there to advance clean energy goals in South Carolina.

So there are several things happening right now, even though we've passed the Energy Freedom Act. We have nothing but potential to make further improvement.


It's very interesting. I think the South Carolina energy landscape is an interesting one that I only started getting into as I spoke to other people in the energy field. In the last podcast I did regarding energy in the UK space, they have a liberalized energy market which means, as a consumer, if I look at my utilities provider and I see that they have 80% coal fire produced energy, and I don't agree with that, I can go look around and choose a different utility provider. But in South Carolina, we don't have that choice, just like you were SCE&G, we're now under Dominion. We also have Duke. And that's where this Public Service Commission comes in is because I assume the intention of that is to regulate a monopoly, because it means the utilities have a monopoly on their customers. But what has happened, and maybe the V.C. Summer, as much of a debacle as that was, you rightly brought up the opportunities involved, that this commission, that nobody was paying any attention to ... No consumers ... I didn't know who they were ... Knew what was going on and inevitably led to the highest energy costs in the US.

I always forget that South Carolina does have very high energy costs compared to other places. So how much can us as consumers, actually do? Or is this where we need to be educated and vote strategically to try and change this system that's maybe preventing renewables from coming into the mix as quickly as they could? Or getting some new blood on that PSC? It sounds like, if they've just been sitting there for decades, that they're in cushy positions, and now they're under the microscope. What do you think we can do?


There are a few different things. First, talking to your legislator and letting them know that you know the Public Service Commission exists, and you know that they have to vote on new commissioners, because they're voted on by the entire General Assembly. So every legislator has a role to play. They have a vote in this. I don't know yet when those elections are going to be held. They were supposed to be held right around now, in early May, and we're hoping to see action on that before the end of the year, but right now, it's all up in the air about what the legislative schedule will look like. So talking to your legislator and telling them that you want them to be thoughtful about who they vote into the Commission and that this is a very important role, I think is a really great first step.

In terms of ... There's actually still some active legislation. If the legislature is able to come back at all, they will focus on legislation that is pretty close to passage and one bill that is fairly close to passage, that passed the House, and is now in the Senate is the RTO Bill. So the acronym RTO stands for Regional Transmission Organization. The short, layman's way to talk about this is ... This is essentially a marketplace, like a third party marketplace for injecting competition into the generation market. So this wouldn't deregulate utilities in the sense that you and I would get to choose which utility we were purchasing power for, but what it would do is it would create this third party entity that would force the utilities to choose the cheapest generation option out there. So if solar is the cheapest generation option, they'll need to purchase from that solar producer, for instance.

So on the generation side of where utilities are getting their power, it will inject competition and we are the last region in the country that does not have an RTO, or something similar. In other places that have adopted these systems like an RTO, they have seen prices go down, the cost of power go down because it is injecting competition into the generation discussion. Now, this bill would not create an RTO. We don't move that fast in South Carolina. This bill would create a study committee to investigate establishing an RTO. Now study committees are only as good as what you put into them. But legislators in leadership in both the House and Senate are pretty invested in seeing the study committee be effective. They're trying to make sure it has the funding to be effective, for instance, and to work actively on investigating whether an RTO is the right answer for South Carolina to join.

It's definitely a growing discussion in the southeast. I think there's just more and more pressure. Other states are dealing with similar issues like this. Georgia has a similar nuclear problem. So I think this is going to be one of the next frontiers of what we do in the clean energy space to inject competition and to drive down costs. So hopefully that legislation can still pass this year. I don't know how that will affect the timeline of the study committee. This pandemic has thrown everything into a bit of an unknown category, but there's a lot of potential there to start that conversation about competition in the utility space.

We had other legislation this year that I hope will be brought back up in 2021. So as folks were talking to legislators saying that you care about whether it's solar, or clean energy, or however you want to think about these renewable options. For instance, there was a discussion about whether or not Homeowner Associations can limit solar, and to what extent they can limit solar rooftop installations. So there were some legislators, Republican legislators from the coast who introduced legislation to address those boundaries with HOAs and solar. There was also a discussion about clarifying the tax treatment for residential rooftop installations to make sure that we're clarifying that getting solar installed on your rooftop does not drive up your tax bill.

So there are lots of little pieces and parts now that we've kind of addressed some of the big policy questions in the Energy Freedom Act that we're trying to address. There's still an opportunity ... The solar HOA legislation was introduced because constituents when to their legislators and said, "Can you please help us?" So going and talking to your legislator about what you're experiencing as someone who may or may not be trying to adopt solar, or what you want just as a citizen, how you want your utilities to treat clean energy ... Going and having those conversations with your legislators make a huge difference. They're quarantined right now, just like us. It's a great time to pick up the phone and reach out. Conservation Voters recently did an advocacy one-on-one webinar, and we heard from a legislator that was really encouraging that kind of outreach during this time. I mean, I keep hearing that from legislators. They want to hear from their constituents about these issues, so don't let things get in the way of creating that relationship with your legislator, even if you're not of the same party.

I had this question asked of me this week, where someone said, "Well, A, I'm a transplant, so I'm not from around here. I don't really feel like I can talk to my legislator, and B, I'm from a different party than they are." I would not let that stop you, and I've heard legislators say, "That is not something that should stop you talking to me." They want to hear from their voters and their constituents, and as long as you treat them like another human and are kind and respectful, then you all can have a great conversation about these issues. And I think, generally, I find there's more common ground than not. Like for instance, the constituents that worked on solar HOA ... They seemed shocked that their legislators were that excited to work on solar. And I said, "No, no, no. Your legislators are some of the best champions on clean energy in the state. You are lucky. You should take advantage of this." So never assume anything about where your legislator is on these issues.

And like I said, we have a solar majority, so they generally may be with you. So I think those will be great opportunities we're hoping to pick up where we left off, either later this year or into next year. And finally, the last thing that we are continuing to work on, we don't have legislation for yet, are ways to address the fact that not everyone can afford to put solar on their roof. I can't afford to put solar on my roof. And my yard is pretty shaded, so it may not be a great place to put solar. But I would love to be able to purchase a share of a solar farm, like in a community solar opportunity. And that's something that we could have better policies on. So we're looking at how do we improve options for community solar so that everyone can access solar. Like if you're in an apartment, or something. That could be an option for you. We're also looking at how we can improve energy efficiency. We have so many people in South Carolina that are paying high power bills because the power's seeping right out through the door or window or roof, or whatever it is. There are a lot of energy efficiency opportunities. So we are also working on some work groups and looking at what policy outcomes we could get in South Carolina.

So we're definitely in the middle of some fun policy goals.


It sounds great. It's very encouraging, and it sounds like there's a strong call to action that you've mentioned - contacting your legislator and expressing your views on these issues and hopefully getting a good response. But we are also in an election year, so we will be going to, or mailing, our votes in in the next few months, both in June and in November. What should we be looking out for when we're at the ballot box? And I know you guys also have a legislative scorecard, so does that help us as voters make informed decisions about who we vote for this year?


Yeah, please go check out our scorecard. We produce it at the end of every two-year legislative session. So right now, the 2017 to 2018 scorecard is up. I know it may seem dated now, but it is a fantastic indicator of where your legislator is. Sometimes they improve session to session, and sometimes they don't. You can check out your legislator's score on there. If you know your legislator's name, you can even just Google their last name and CVSC and you'll get their page. Or just go to our website. You can look up your legislator, you can scroll through the scorecard. You can see their lifetime score and their session score. Also, we have a legislative hotlist blog on the website where you can get the latest updates.

We are working on the 2019 to 2020 scorecard, even though legislative session was kind of abruptly cut short. It actually looks like the legislature is coming back this month for a three-week session or so. We're still gathering intel on that. The release of our scorecard may be affected by that. We don't want to prematurely release the scorecard if it looks like they may act on legislation in late May. So we are looking at that right now. Our hope is to release the scorecard this summer. We were hoping to have it released by the primary, but that may or may not happen based on the legislative schedule. So if you ever have any questions about your legislators, we also have a list of legislators that we have endorsed on our website. We're going to be updating that with another slug of endorsed candidates on there, so we will be posting our endorsements regularly on the website. This is who our board and staff have recommended for endorsement based on their voting record, but the story goes beyond just numbers, based on who has really shown leadership, who is consistently a friend of conservation, etc.

So hopefully those are all good indicators. We don't endorse in every single race, so if you're not finding the information you're looking for, please feel free to reach out to staff. Our contact information is on the website, and we'll be happy to help as best we can. The biggest thing is, I know ... I already went into this week and looked at my sample ballot for the primary to check out who had primary competition. For instance, my legislators don't have primary competition. It's just local races this time around for me. But keep an eye on your state races. They really matter the most. I cannot tell you how effective and productive state legislators are, for better or worse. So it is good to stay active at the state legislative level. Congress is much less productive, and much less effective. So if you really want to pay attention to the things that are really going to affect your day to day, it is at the state level. So please tune into that and let us know how we can help.


Excellent. You've mentioned the website. Can you give us a web address, and then also any other way that people can connect with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina?


Yeah. Check out Conservation Voters of South Carolina at That's You can also follow us, please, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We hope to see you in that space. We also, during the time of COVID, we are working with our partners in the South Carolina Conservation Coalition and we've been doing weekly webinars on various environmental policy and advocacy topics, so that list is on our website as well as the Conservation Coalition has been doing a weekly podcast during this time. It's me from Conservation Voters along with the Congaree Riverkeeper and Coastal Conservation League are co-hosting. So all of that information is on our website as well. We hope we've given you all lots of fun, interesting different opportunities to engage with us, especially during social distancing.


It certainly has been a big change for all of us. Well Rebecca, I really appreciate this. I'm glad that we could do it, even if it's not in person, and you've given us some fantastic information in regard to voting pro-conservation in South Carolina and really given insight on the legislative process. That's certainly something that I'm not fully aware of, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners don't understand the intricacies, so it's a good reminder for us to look into these things, go onto the website, understand who we're voting for, and understanding the gravity of the votes and how it affects our day to day lives. So I appreciate that.


Yeah. Happy to help. It is not an easy process to engage in the state legislature, so that's why we're here, and hopefully we can help.


Awesome. Well, I appreciate it. I hope you have a great rest of the day and a wonderful weekend.


Thank you.