Santee Cooper asked the S.C. Supreme Court on Monday to rule that 20 electric co-ops — and their almost 2 million customers — must continue to pay the costs of the state-owned utility's failed effort to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
The petition was a reaction to lawsuits filed against Santee Cooper by some of the co-ops, which buy their power from the utility. The co-ops want the courts to order Santee Cooper to stop charging them for the unfinished reactors, which Santee Cooper and its partner, SCANA, abandoned last summer after a decade of work and $9 billion in costs.
Santee Cooper billed its customers to pay for the nuclear plant as construction was underway and has continued to do so since the reactors were abandoned. However, some of the co-ops filed suit in August to stop the billing and seek refunds.
Santee Cooper's petition, more than 300 pages, claims the utility has the legal right to charge its customers for debts it incurred to build the reactors even after the project went bust, leaving billions in unpaid debt.
If the co-ops do not pay their share of those costs, Santee Cooper "eventually would be unable to maintain its ongoing operations," the petition says.
The Supreme Court could take the matter up, hold hearings and, ultimately, issue a ruling on Santee Cooper's petition. Or the high court could send the issue back to a lower court for hearings, producing a record of the facts and the laws at issue.
Santee Cooper said it wants to avoid a time-consuming trial.
"A lengthy trial and appeal process could jeopardize the valuable state asset that is Santee Cooper," said utility general counsel J. Michael Baxley. "We need immediate Supreme Court action."
Santee Cooper provides power to more than 2 million South Carolinians, most served through a network of regional electric cooperatives.
Santee Cooper borrowed $4 billion to build the nuclear reactors. Approximately $2.8 billion of that debt is owed by the co-ops, the utility contends.
More than 20 lawsuits have been filed against SCANA and Santee Cooper in state and federal courts in the wake of the failed nuclear plant project in Fairfield County.
Most of those lawsuits have been filed against SCANA, the investor-owned utility that was the majority owner and managing partner of the failed nuclear project. Most of those lawsuits seek refunds for $2 billion that customers already have paid for the reactors and an end to continuing monthly nuclear-related charges.
Lawrence Hinz, chairman of the board of Central Electric Power Cooperative, which buys power for the state's coops from Santee Cooper, said Monday, "Let's be clear: electric cooperative consumer-members should not have to pay billions of dollars for two nuclear units that are not producing power."
Whatever happens, Hinz said, the co-ops want a "swift resolution to this matter for our members that protects them from footing the bill for someone else's mistakes."
Central Electric, Santee Cooper's largest customer, buys about 60 percent of the power that utility produces and distributes it to the state's electric co-ops. Central also has filed suit against Santee Cooper and is a defendant in the petition filed Monday by Santee Cooper.