Politics & Government

Facing uncertain future, Santee Cooper to pick retired Arizona utility exec as next CEO

Why Santee Cooper is on the chopping block

State-owned Santee Cooper may be up for sale. Here is what happened since the utility abandoned the V.C. Summer nuclear project with SCE&G.
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State-owned Santee Cooper may be up for sale. Here is what happened since the utility abandoned the V.C. Summer nuclear project with SCE&G.

Santee Cooper will hire a retired public power utility executive from Arizona as its next CEO, The State has learned.

Mark Bonsall, who retired as general manager and CEO of the Salt River Project in May 2018, will be hired to an 18-month contract at a board meeting next Tuesday, Santee Cooper board chairman Dan Ray confirmed to The State in an exclusive interview.

Bonsall will be entrusted to lead Santee Cooper through an era of uncertainty after the state-owned utility lost $4 billion on the failed expansion of the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in Fairfield County.

Chosen for his experience from a field of nearly a dozen candidates, Bonsall will be tasked with overseeing top-to-bottom reform of the state agency, even as lawmakers consider selling Santee Cooper in order to offload its debt.

At an agency that historically has promoted from within, he is the first outside hire for the CEO job since the 1970s.

“The priority was getting someone that had utility executive experience,” Ray said. “We felt like that’s what we needed at the helm today to guide us through this reform. The board is very serious about instituting reform, so we wanted someone who understands how to do that. Clearly, Mark Bonsall was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of his experience.”

Bonsall will take over an agency that is on the chopping block at the State House, as lawmakers work to ensure Santee Cooper’s customers aren’t made to pay higher power bills for the failed V.C. Summer project.

S.C. lawmakers this year voted to field and consider proposals to sell the agency or allow its management to be taken over by another firm.

But Santee Cooper could possibly save itself if the General Assembly is convinced the state agency is improving, namely by reducing its reliance on coal and, most importantly, keeping electric rates low for the 2 million South Carolinians who rely on Santee Cooper’s power.

That’s where Bonsall comes in. The 66-year-old has four decades of utility experience at one of the country’s largest public power utilities.

He began working Arizona’s Salt River Project in 1977 and led the utility as its general manager and CEO from 2011 to 2018.

Like Santee Cooper, the Tempe-based Salt River Project delivers both power and water to its customers.

There Bonsall led a staff of more than 5,000 employees — compared to Santee Cooper’s 1,625 — that delivered power to more than 1 million electric customers, most of them in the greater Phoenix area.

“He’ll be an excellent fit at Santee Cooper because of where we are right now,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms, a Berkeley Republican whose district includes the agency’s headquarters. “Having someone with tremendous experience in running an electric utility, he brings in a wealth of new ideas and experience, and that’s what we need right now.”

Ray said Bonsall has a history of making correct decisions in difficult situations.

And he is bringing help. Bonsall is hiring a former Salt River Project deputy, Charlie Duckworth, as a senior executive at Santee Cooper to help develop the utility’s resource strategy, Ray said.

Bonsall — not Santee Cooper — first requested that the contract be limited to 18 months, Ray said.

“He felt like he could accomplish all the goals we’ve discussed related to reforming the organization,” Ray said. “He felt like he could accomplish that in 18 months.”

Bonsall will replace Jim Brogdon, the agency’s retired in-house counsel. Brogdon accepted the job as Santee Cooper’s interim CEO in October 2017, replacing longtime CEO Lonnie Carter, who retired amid a political firestorm over the collapse of the V.C. Summer project.

Efforts to reach Bonsall on Wednesday were not immediately successful.

He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Arizona State University and a Master of Business Administration degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Before his promotion to CEO of the Salt River Project, he worked for years as its chief financial officer, according to a news release about him joining the Arizona Community Foundation board.

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.