SHOULD SCE&G and Santee Cooper keep pouring our money into a pair of overdue, over-budget multi-billion-dollar nuclear reactors? I have no idea.
To me, that’s like asking whether to sell a tanking stock, which guarantees you lose money, or hold onto it and hope it recovers — and risk losing even more. I never can get those guesses right, and they don’t involve continuing to pour more than $100 million a month into the investment.
I also don’t know whether the assumptions justifying two new reactors at the V.C. Summer plant north of Columbia were reasonable. Obviously, they don’t look very reasonable today: SCE&G says it will need 13 percent less energy in 2020 than it expected when it decided to embark on the nation’s first new nuclear project in 30 years; Santee Cooper says it will need 30 percent less. But at the time, would anyone other than nuclear opponents have seen problems with the projections?
The Public Service Commission didn’t. Of course, that could just be further evidence that the PSC is in the pocket of the utilities it’s supposed to regulate. Or further evidence that a seat on the commission is like any other well-paid political appointment in South Carolina — more about who you know than what you know.
Nor do I know whether it was reasonable for the Legislature to pass the Base Load Review Act, which has allowed SCE&G to raise rates nine times already to pay for the plants that aren’t yet completed. (Santee Cooper has raised rates five times to pay for the plants.) Again, it seems unreasonable now — and probably is worth a serious review, given what we’ve learned in the decade since it was passed. But at the time — when everybody except the anti-nuclear lobby was convinced that we needed more power, and no one could have guessed that the contractor would go bankrupt after the utilities spent $9 billion, leaving them talking seriously about abandoning the whole project — avoiding $1 billion in interest seemed like a pretty good idea.
But here’s one thing I do know: This project was never properly vetted, because one of the partners has no state oversight, and no political accountability.
SCE&G had to get permission from state regulators to proceed with the project. But the only people Santee Cooper had to convince of the wisdom of the project were its board members — political appointees with little utility experience and no independent staff to help them vet claims by the utility that pays them $10,000 to attend seven meetings a year.
Now, maybe that didn’t matter. Maybe the PSC would have approved Santee Cooper’s investment in the nuclear project. And even if it didn’t, maybe SCE&G would have found another partner, or built the plants on its own. Or maybe it would have built just one. Or maybe it wouldn’t have built anything. We can never know.
But here’s another thing I know for certain: This is no way to run a massive utility. Or a government.
Santee Cooper isn’t subject to PSC regulation because it is technically a governmental entity — which is a topic for another day. That’s a policy that makes some sense when it’s applied to, say, city-owned water utilities — which deliver a comparatively simple product and, in any event, don’t become junior partners in multi-billion-dollar facilities that create a waste stream that will outlast all of us, and perhaps all of humanity, by millennia. Beyond delivering a simpler product, those entities are governed by elected officials. That is, there is a measure of accountability.
With the unregulated Santee Cooper, there is no accountability.
There used to be accountability, at least in theory. The governor appoints the 12 members of a board of directors, and the governor could remove them if he saw fit. But then Jim Hodges had the temerity to actually remove one of those commissioners, the commissioner sued, the Supreme Court found in favor of the governor, and after intervening steps involving Mark Sanford (need I say more?), the Legislature stripped governors of the authority to remove their own appointees. And didn’t give that power to anyone else.
So now the governor appoints the board members, and they remain on the job for their seven-year terms. Even if they make lousy decisions. Even if they make decisions that subject their customers (or, in the case of the cooperatives whose energy Santee Cooper supplies, their customers’ customers) to billions of dollars in higher bills for … possibly nothing. They remain unless the governor can prove they violated the law or committed another of a small list of removable offenses. In which case they can can appeal.
All of this means that the Santee Cooper board answers to no one. And since board members are political appointees, who know about as much about running a utility company as the political appointees who run the Ports Authority, or DHEC, or any other state agency run by a part-time, unaccountable board, it sort of means that Santee Cooper answers to no one.
And it’s spending billions of dollars on two nuclear reactors that might never be completed and, if they are, might not be needed for decades to come.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.