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S.C. lawmakers have hired a high-powered consulting firm to study the sale of Santee Cooper and — in a significant development — field and evaluate offers to buy the state-owned utility.
The move, made Wednesday after legislators met privately with the firm for nearly two hours, is important because more than 2 million South Carolinians get their electricity from Santee Cooper, including the customers of the state’s 20 electric co-ops. The utility also employs 1,700.
Wednesday’s action brings the S.C. General Assembly closer to the brink of selling the Moncks Corner-based utility, which racked up $4 billion in debt on a failed effort to build two additional reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County.
For the first time, would-be buyers of Santee Cooper — like Florida-based NextEra Energy or Greenville-based Pacolet Milliken — will have an official avenue to submit bids for the General Assembly to consider. Those bids would be nonbinding.
Previously, a handful of companies had pitched unofficial offers to S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and top lawmakers.
“When we try to value Santee Cooper, we can’t do it in the abstract,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, the Sumter Republican who is leading a group of lawmakers studying whether to sell the utility. “At the end of the day, it’s what someone is willing to offer. ... We need to test the market.”
The firm hired Wednesday, Virginia-based ICF International, said it could begin fielding and evaluating offers by mid-January, just after the General Assembly returns to Columbia for its 2019 session. They would advise lawmakers of their assessment by late February.
The decision Wednesday is a victory for McMaster.
The Richland Republican has pushed to sell Santee Cooper since it pulled the plug on the V.C. Summer expansion project in July 2017.
Up for election next month, McMaster long has said selling the utility is the only way to eliminate its debt and protect Santee Cooper customers from paying any further for the unfinished nuclear reactors.
Still, only the General Assembly can sell Santee Cooper, and some top lawmakers despise the idea of parting with the Moncks Corner-headquartered utility and endangering its 1,700 jobs.
A legislative committee – including McMaster – has met several times this fall to study the idea, including hiring an outside consultant to do much of the heavy lifting in selling Santee Cooper.
Rep. Smith said hiring ICF would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he was unsure of the final price.
A Santee Cooper spokeswoman said the state agency is looking forward to working with ICF. The firm plans to assess the value of Santee Cooper’s assets, determine which parts of the utility can be sold, and field and evaluate bids from outside companies.
Ultimately, ICF’s findings will help Smith’s committee take the full General Assembly a recommendation on whether Santee Cooper should be sold.