Lawmakers fiddle while utility ratepayers burn
BY Frank Knapp, Jr.
Special to the Chronicle
By July 31, 2017, as head of the SC Small Business Chamber, I had become a vocal critic of the SCE&G/Santee Cooper nuclear construction project.
It was years behind schedule, billions of dollar over budget and cost its 725,000 ratepayers more than $2 billion.
On that day 3 years ago, the 2 utilities officially abandoned their $9 billion project.
SCE&G, which owned 55% of the project, had raised its rates 18% over 9 years to pay for financing costs. SCE&G’s nuclear construction debt stood at $5 billion.
Santee Cooper customers had paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the utility’s 45% share of the project. The state agency’s nuclear debt was over $4 billion.
As I told a reporter on July 31, 2017, the Small Business Chamber wanted to claw back every penny customers had paid toward the nuclear project and free them of responsible for any of the nuclear debt.
How much of what we asked for has come to pass?
A 2918 ratepayer’s class-action lawsuit resulted in SCE&G customers eventually getting bill credits for the money they had already paid for the nuclear project.
In December 2018, the Public Service Commission ruled that Dominion Energy could buy SCANA, SCE&G’s owner.
The ruling ordered lowering electric rates 15% and ratepayers would not have to pay $2.7 billion of the total nuclear debt.
Ratepayers would pay $2.3 billion of the debt and 3% higher rates for a failed project that will never produce any electricity.
Since 2018 state lawmakers have debated what to do with taxpayer-owned Santee Cooper’s $4 billion nuclear debt and rate hikes that have its customers on the line for billions of dollars for the failed project.
The legislature has yet to make a final decision. It has entertained offers to buy or manage it and a proposal from Santee Cooper on how it could fix its financial mess. Settlement of a ratepayer class-action lawsuit this month addressed clawing back $520 million customers had already paid for the nuclear project, while reducing rates 8% starting next month. The remaining $4 billion nuclear debt is still the responsibility of Santee Cooper customers.
Unfortunately, lawmakers refused NextEra Energy’s offer to buy Santee Cooper.
That offer would have erased all the nuclear and other $6.8 billion debt, reduced rates by 18%, recovered $540 million for customers’ past higher rates and put the utility under the oversight of the PSC.
On this 3rd anniversary of the nuclear abandonment, Dominion and Santee Cooper customers still are on the hook.
There’s no hope for Dominion customers but the sale of Santee Cooper still might get the job done for its customers.
Frank Knapp Jr. is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce
Hang out with snakes, expect to get bit.
1 Corinthians 15.22; 2 Corinthians 6.14-17