More than nine months after two S.C. utilities abandoned their $9 billion effort to build two nuclear reactors, state lawmakers have yet to pass any laws addressing one of the largest financial debacles in S.C. history.
With just one week left in the legislative session, the pressure is on for the General Assembly to fulfill months-old promises to protect S.C. power customers from paying higher power bills for the unfinished V.C. Summer Station reactors.
State lawmakers also have yet to pass proposed laws restructuring the regulatory system that allowed Cayce-based SCE&G and the state-owned Santee Cooper utility to embark on their project and keep pouring their customers' money into the failing venture.
“This would be a legislative debacle” if lawmakers fail to pass long-term solutions this year, said Frank Knapp, chief executive of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “What an embarrassment it would be to the state of South Carolina."
A handful of proposals aimed at protecting SCE&G customers and preventing a future debacle have passed the S.C. House. But most have stalled so far in the state Senate.
Here is where each of the proposals stands:
▪ SCE&G rate cut: S. 954, the Legislature’s best chance to cut SCE&G’s rates, is tied up in a conference committee, where Senate and House negotiators are working through their differences over how much to slice from the investor-owned utility’s power bills.
The House insists on cutting SCE&G's rates by 18 percent — the amount the utility adds to its customers' monthly power bill for the nuclear project. But the Senate wants to cut only 13 percent. That is how much lawmakers could cut from the utility's rates without forcing it into bankruptcy, according to a Senate-commissioned study.
The conference committee could meet again this week. The rate-cut proposal also could be passed when lawmakers return to Columbia this summer to take up Gov. Henry McMaster’s vetoes.
▪ Repealing the Base Load Review Act: H. 4375 would repeal — for all future projects — the 2007 state law that allowed SCE&G to charge its customers for the V.C. Summer expansion, during construction and after its abandonment.
It also would define the words “prudent” and “imprudent” for the Public Service Commission. Lawmakers wanted those words defined before the PSC uses them to judge whether SCE&G’s actions in managing the Summer project were reasonable and the utility’s costs justified.
The House passed the repeal bill Jan. 31. The bill now is up for debate on the Senate floor. A version of the repeal bill is included in the House's version of the state budget.
▪ Strengthening utility watchdogs: H. 4379 would create a “consumer advocate,” an attorney to fight for consumers in utility rate-hike cases.
The bill, which the House passed on Jan. 24, also would give subpoena power to the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state agency that polices utilities, and remove a requirement that agency also look out for utilities’ finances. The proposal is up for debate on the Senate floor.
▪ More oversight for Santee Cooper: The House passed H. 4376 — sacking Santee Cooper's board and requiring the state-owned utility to seek the PSC's approval for any rate hikes — on April 4. But the proposal has gone nowhere in the Senate. It is unlikely to pass this year, unless lawmakers decide to finish action on the nuclear proposals when they return to Columbia this summer for their veto session.
▪ Firing the Public Service Commission: H. 4377 would sack members of the PSC – the state board that approved nine rates hikes to help SCE&G finance the nuclear project – over the next two years. It passed the House on Feb. 20 but since has languished in the Senate. It also is unlikely to pass unless lawmakers debate it this summer.
▪ Shaking up who oversees energy regulators: On Jan. 25, the House passed a proposal to get rid of the state board that screens PSC members and Santee Cooper board members, and start over with a new board. However, the bill, H. 4378, has not been debated in the Senate.