Santee Cooper plans to pay a public relations consultant about $20,000 over the next two months to help the state-owned utility combat the “rampant misinformation” it says is being spread online to build support for its sale.
The 85-year-old utility is hiring Chip Felkel, a Greenville communications strategist and GOP political consultant, to address what it says are erroneous claims from third-party groups about Santee Cooper’s electric rates, financial stability and debt.
Santee Cooper is bringing on extra help just as state lawmakers revisit the months-long debate over whether to sell or reform the state agency after it racked up $4 billion in debt before abandoning the long-delayed and overbudget V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project in July 2017.
The S.C. Senate next Tuesday will begin a floor debate on a proposal that would work toward Santee Cooper’s sale. There are just three weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, but lawmakers could return to Columbia for a special session this summer to decide Santee Cooper’s fate.
“Given that legislators are considering options for the future of Santee Cooper, it is important that stakeholders across South Carolina know the facts that are relevant to that discussion,” Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore wrote in an email to The State.
Santee Cooper is about $7.2 billion in debt, and the majority of that is from the V.C. Summer project.
The utility’s customers are paying about $5 a month in higher rates for that project now, but those rates are expected to rise another $8 or so as customers foot the bill for the project over the next four decades.
Ratepayers who buy Santee Cooper’s power directly will wind up paying an average of $6,200 per household for the project, while customers who get Santee Cooper’s power through an electric co-op will pay about $4,200 per household.
Over the past few months, conservative groups and think tanks such as the S.C. Club for Growth and Palmetto Promise Institute have hammered Santee Cooper over its debt and pushed the utility’s sale as the best solution for customers.
A group called Energy Consumers of the Carolinas has a website that features a running “Santee Cooper debt clock” followed by a message: “Customers will pay higher rates for years to come unless your elected officials take action to sell.”
But some of the debt estimates and rate projections — from those groups and others on social media — are far higher than Santee Cooper’s own estimates. The utility recently put out an “open letter to customers” explaining that its rates are no higher than other S.C. investor-owned utilities and that it is financially stable.
Felkel said he will help with that effort.
“We’re going to look at those and try to set the record straight, and then whatever happens in the General Assembly is what happens,” Felkel said.