Opinion Extra

Op-ed: New Santee Cooper president says utility’s future is leaner, greener

It is my privilege to have been entrusted by the Santee Cooper Board of Directors with the role as president and CEO, and to work with the board and others to transform its future. Originally from Arizona, I previously worked for a similar public enterprise, the Salt River Project, or SRP. SRP supplies water and electricity to much of central Arizona, including Phoenix, so I have some familiarity with the purposes and importance of Santee Cooper.

While not new to South Carolina, my reintroduction to this great state has been enjoyable — the very warm and cordial people, the abundance of nature, and the fishing. Both the desert and the Lowcountry possess unique and enjoyable forms of beauty.

Retiring last year after 41 years of service at SRP, the last seven as CEO, SRP was in excellent condition upon my departure. My contributions to SRP, through a lifetime of dedication, are a point of pride.

It is natural to ask why might one come out of retirement and take on this job? First and foremost, I have known Santee Cooper through industry association for several decades — its history, its good work, its wonderful employees, its community involvement and support of economic development, and its significance to the state of South Carolina. Secondly, I know of its record — clearly superior reliability, price competitiveness, and enviable public and employee safety. So I consider Santee Cooper to be a good utility — but one with a problem directly tied to the decision to build V. C. Summer Units 2&3. That is what drove me to accept this challenge — to find a way to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. I believe that is both possible and preferable.

Many years ago at SRP, in the face of a rapidly transforming utility industry, we undertook an intense effort to define our “winning proposition” — a “ten words or less” statement of future direction for success. This proved very difficult as that kind of brevity is hard to capture, but we got it down to seven words. We concluded that we must be “leaner, greener, and even more customer centric.” We did not let this conclusion gather dust on a shelf — we decisively acted on these words.

We radically de-risked our generating fleet, turning away from large, capital intensive central station plants, whether coal or nuclear. We incorporated massive new amounts of renewable energy, whether solar, wind or geothermal, and backed it with batteries and gas. We tied renewables to large industrial loads, landing Apple in our service territory, and increasing Intel’s presence. All of these steps drastically reduced our emissions profile. Because these steps reduced high fixed costs, we lightened our balance sheet and became more financially flexible. We fully implemented a bi-directional smart grid, enabling many new customer options that generate shared savings. We achieved more than a 20% system average price advantage over neighboring utilities. Along the way we earned some 42 J.D. Power awards and recognitions for customer service.

New technologies and approaches, and the mindset to deploy them, can bring about these results. These lessons are applicable to Santee Cooper. Its Board, employees, and customers are more than ready for these new directions. So this is my new job. I am excited about it, and ask the court of public opinion, and particularly the good people of the state’s electric cooperatives, for the latitude to complete this job. Thank you in advance for that courtesy as Santee Cooper moves toward a leaner, greener, and more customer-centric future.

Mark B. Bonsall is the president and CEO of Santee Cooper.