Energy is the life-blood for our homes and businesses, but here in South Carolina, we have a serious energy problem.
After borrowing billions of dollars, state-owned Santee Cooper and SCANA-owned SCE&G have abandoned plans to build two new nuclear units. Regrettably, the decision was made only after more than $9 billion had been sunk into the project — a burden to be borne by S.C. families and businesses if things don’t change.
As legislators discuss the best way out of this energy mess, it is important to remember how we got here and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
First and foremost, we must recognize that the state government needs to get out of the business of running a utility. Period. The government has proven — time and again — that it’s not very good at running things, and this is no exception.
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Second, while the nuclear project was a bust, our state still needs energy. South Carolina’s population is soaring. To ensure residents and businesses can continue to thrive, we must have reliable, diversified electricity at a reasonable price.
But the damage has been done and the finger pointing begun.
Some point to the state elected officials who passed the 2007 Base Load Review Act, guaranteeing SCANA stockholders a return on their investment despite the company’s costly and poor decisions. Others point to the leadership of SCE&G and Santee Cooper for recklessly borrowing and spending billions. SCANA’s proposal to force ratepayers to continue financing the failed project while accepting a minor discount on their bills was labeled as “completely unacceptable” by Gov. Henry McMaster, “an insult to ratepayers” by Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman and “further proof that SCANA has consistently prioritized the company's profits over protecting its consumers” by House Speaker Jay Lucas.
Santee Cooper’s board has raised rates five times already to fund the project, and if things don’t change, it will continue to raise rates to recover its debt. Its decision to freeze rate increases simply delays the pain and incurs additional interest on funds already borrowed. A state-owned utility, having no shareholders, should offer the lowest rates in the state, and Santee Cooper doesn’t. Santee Cooper is funded entirely by its customers — including the 1.5 million co-op customers who buy directly from the utility; if customers don’t pay the debt, simple logic tells us that South Carolina’s families and businesses are next in line. The only way those customers will ever see relief is for Santee Cooper to be sold.
We can pay off our houses, we can pay off our cars, but electricity bills keep coming month after month, and we deserve better.
No matter what allowed the V.C. Summer debacle to take place, there are questions that must be asked and answered: Where will we get the electricity that the new reactors would have provided and that our growing residential and business communities will need? Will South Carolina make the most of new and cost-effective technologies to diversify its energy mix? Will we finally say enough is enough and demand that utilities be subjected to oversight and run by companies experienced in producing reliable and affordable electricity? And will the measures proposed by legislators relieve families and businesses from the burden of the debt Santee Cooper and SCANA incurred?
We can pay off our houses, we can pay off our cars, but electricity bills keep coming month after month, and we deserve better. We deserve affordable and reliable energy sources that don’t burden our families, that create jobs and that positively contribute to the state’s economy.
It’s time to take our energy future and turn it around. It’s time for our lawmakers to take action to get families and businesses off the hook from paying for electricity they will never receive. It’s time we sell Santee Cooper and get our state government out of the energy business. It’s time to insure SCANA and not its customers pay for that utility’s mistakes. And it’s time to beef up oversight to ensure something like this never happens again.
Mr. Barrett is a former member of the S.C. and U.S. House who chairs the Palmetto Energy Coalition; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.