Utility rates could rise to pay for delayed SC nuclear plant

The state-owned Santee Cooper power company is looking at raising electricity rates for customers, in part to help pay for the continued construction of a controversial and over budget nuclear expansion project northwest of Columbia.

The Santee Cooper board received the results of a study Monday that recommends increasing rates for customers. The board would make a decision on the plan late this year after a series of public meetings.

The Santee Cooper rate increase would cause the average monthly bill to rise from $127.60 to $133.80 next year. Rates would go up again the following year. The increases under consideration by Santee Cooper would be the utility’s sixth since 2009 that include additional funding for the V.C. Summer nuclear plant.

Monday's plan came on the same day the power company voted to spend more time studying the future of the $14 billion nuclear project it is building with SCE&G in the face of a bankruptcy by the project's chief contractor, Westinghouse. The board closed the meeting temporarily to discuss the plant expansion before voting to extend the study period 45 days. The board authorized spending up to $50 million to keep the partially built reactor project going.

Spokeswoman Mollie Gore said more than half of the rate increase would be for the new nuclear plant, but that is to cover costs that were expected instead of overruns at the V.C.Summer plant site. The increase is for financing costs.

Board chairman Leighton Lord said Santee Cooper has "hard decisions" to make. Lord said new nuclear plants can provide the energy the state needs in the future. Lord said the goal with nuclear is to get away from coal and provide carbon free energy production.

The Summer expansion project would add two reactors to the existing reactor in Fairfield County to provide additional electrical capacity for more customers. The project has been heavily criticized by environmental groups for a variety of reasons, including the impact it has had on ratepayers. They also have noted that demand for energy is decreasing and that more emphasis should be put on wind and solar.

Last week, environmentalists called on the state Public Service Commission to order SCE&G to refund customers for some of the rate increases they have incurred to pay for the project.

The Summer project is approaching $3 billion over its original price and costs are forecast to soar. The first of the twin reactors was supposed to be ready in 2016, but neither will be built before 2020.

Santee Cooper, as a state utility, is not regulated by the state Public Service Commission.

Since the project started, SCE&G customers have been hit with nine rate increases to finance the work. That is about 18 percent of the average customer’s power bill. Ratepayers have put about $1.4 billion toward the unfinished project, but that is only for finance costs. The project owners, SCE&G and Santee Cooper, have collectively sunk nearly $9 billion into the work already.

Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy this past spring. Westinghouse’s parent company, which was supposed to help guarantee money for the project, also is in financial jeopardy.

Santee Cooper, which unlike SCE&G is not regulated by a state oversight board, has raised electricity rates five times since 2009 to help pay for the reactor project., The company has collected about $540 million from customers, out of some $4 billion Santee Cooper spent on the project, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. The proposed rate increase would be the sixth since 2009. Much of the money has been used for the nuclear project.

Sammy Fretwell: 803-771-8837, @sfretwell83