PSC member quits solar energy case after power company complains

Sammy Fretwell
·3 min read

South Carolina Public Service Commissioner Tom Ervin has recused himself from voting on whether a power company can impose new charges for solar customers after Dominion Energy accused him of making biased statements.

The energy company took issue with statements Ervin made during a hearing last week, filing a motion for him to step away from the case because his “conduct runs afoul’’ of judicial standards and “reveals a personal bias.’’

Dominion wants to add charges for people who rely on rooftop solar to reduce their power bills. Solar industry officials and environmentalists oppose the new charges.

In comments last week during the hearing, the outspoken Ervin said he would oppose Dominion’s plan.

“I’m not buying it and I can tell you that I’m going to fight it because it’s wrong,’’ he said, adding that solar customers “made a financial investment thinking that they would have a chance over time to save money. And you’re taking that away.”

Ervin, a retired circuit judge, said he would “do everything in my power to see that it doesn’t pass.’’

The PSC, which regulates utility rates, has not yet ruled on Dominion’s proposed solar energy charges. Its commissioners act as judges, meaning they must be careful to hear all the evidence before rendering a decision.

Ervin’s comments raised questions about whether he would favor those opposed to additional solar charges over the power company.

After making his statements and after Dominion complained, Ervin said he would no longer be involved or vote on whether to grant Dominion’s proposal to impose new charges. He said he would “man up and accept responsibility for what I did. I’m not proud of what happened.’’

In an email Monday to The State, Ervin said he believes he could have made a fair decision if he had continued with the hearing, but it was better to step aside.

“I decided that a recusal was best to insure that all parties in this hearing would have full confidence in the commission’s final decision,’’ Ervin’s email said. “In layman’s language, I may have ‘jumped the gun’ in this instance, so I thought it only fair to all parties to withdraw.’’

The issue before the PSC centers on whether Dominion can levy the charges on solar customers.

Dominion says rooftop solar customers, who get power from both their own solar panels and the utility, are being subsidized by customers who don’t have sun panels on their homes.

But solar boosters and environmental groups say any subsidy is negligible and Dominion’s charges will sharply reduce the savings people can get from having rooftop sun panels.

Ervin’s dustup with Dominion is not the first time he’s had a dispute over statements about the solar industry while serving as a member of the Public Service Commission.

In late 2019, the state Public Utilities Review Committee, a legislative committee, asked Attorney General Alan Wilson to look into Ervin’s contact with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

Ervin had written a Conservation Voters staff member to explain why the commission had voted to approve solar energy rates that the conservation groups did not like.

In a statement Monday, attorney general’s office spokesman Robert Kittle said that after a thorough review, criminal charges were not warranted.. Ervin declined comment.

The Conservation Voters, which had sent a mass mailing to Ervin about the issue, contacted the Public Utilities Review Committee after he responded to the group.. Some observers, including state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat and lawyer, said it appeared the review committee was making a big deal over a minor issue.

Asked Monday about strong reaction from the power company this year and from conservationists in 2019, Ervin said “one might infer that there may be certain parties who wish to limit my participation. In certain decisions. I hope that’s not the case.’’