It has been a brutal year for South Carolina’s beleaguered government-run power provider – Santee Cooper. The debt-addled, chronically mismanaged utility has been fighting desperately (and dishonestly) to keep state lawmakers from offloading it to the private sector – something this news outlet argued should have been done over a dozen years ago.
Lawmakers did not listen to us, though …
We are referring, of course, to NukeGate – a massive taxpayer/ ratepayer-subsidized fleecing that has set the citizens of South Carolina back billions of dollars.
And the meter is still running …
To recap: SCANA and Santee Cooper jacked rates on consumers (and assumed huge amounts of debt) in order to subsidize the construction of a pair of next generation, pressurized water nuclear reactors near Jenkinsville, S.C. In fact, Santee Cooper proposed a huge rate hike to support the construction of these reactors just one week before pulling the plug on the project.
The two reactors were supposed to have been completed in 2016 and 2017, respectively. That never happened, though. Santee Cooper pulled the plug on the half-completed project in July 2017 as its debt ballooned to a staggering $7.4 billion.
Even worse than shelling out billions of dollars on a pair of reactors that will never produce so much as a watt of energy? The accompanying (ongoing) deceit …
Executives at both utilities knew this project was doomed for years and didn’t warn the public. Instead, they kept raising rates … while Santee Cooper appears to have deliberately misled its investors, too.
As the walls continue to close in on Santee Cooper, its lies are ramping back up …
This week, Santee Cooper chief executive officer Mark Bonsall took to the pages of The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier to tout the “progress” the utility has ostensibly made under his high-priced leadership.
“We have accomplished much in recent months, with all progress directly credited to legislators who gave us this time and opportunity,” he wrote. “We will not squander a minute of it, as we transform Santee Cooper into a leaner, greener utility, and one offering unequaled benefit in terms of low rates, reliability, safety and economic development for our customers and South Carolina.”
Really? Where to even start with this fiction …
Why don’t we begin with what Bonsall omitted from his shameless public relations sop?
First, he didn’t address how his utility has been ripping off local homeowners associations.
Nor did he discuss the fact Santee Cooper’s board has been improperly receiving taxpayer-funded health care benefits.
Bonsall also neglected to mention that his utility’s rates are so anti-competitive it has to take its customers to court in an effort to keep them from securing more cost-effective options.
Nor did he promise that Santee Cooper wouldn’t attempt to raise fees during its so-called “rate freeze” period over the next four years. Similarly, he failed to address the utility’s ongoing speculative “economic development” expenditures – the costs of which will be “recovered after the freeze period via rate adjustment,” according to its internal documents.
Smoke and mirrors, people … smoke and mirrors.
Oh, and while Bonsall heralded a recent ratepayer settlement (which is frankly just an extension of the last fleecing) … he provided no update on the status of an investor lawsuit filed against the utility. Nor did he address the ongoing criminal investigation into the NukeGate debacle.
But these examples are just window dressing …
Bonsall’s biggest lie? His claim that his utility can still afford to shut down its inefficient, environmentally unfriendly coal facilities.
Santee Cooper’s so-called “reform” plan envisions saving $2.7 billion over the next two decades owing to “a greener energy mix and other efficiencies.” Part of this “greener mix?” The shuttering of four coal-fired units at the Winyah Generating Station in Georgetown, S.C. beginning in 2023.
In his column, Bonsall said Santee was “taking steps necessary to close the coal-fired Winyah Generating Station beginning in 2023, including idling two units early, one in December and one in late 2021 or early 2022.”
We have a simple question for Bonsall: Where is he going to find the power to replace what Santee is losing at Winyah?
Earlier this year, we reported on how a recent decision by Virginia-based Dominion Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy to cancel plans for a major natural gas artery shredded Santee Cooper’s reform projections (to the extent they were viable in the first place).
Seriously … the math does not add up.
So again … where is the juice going to come from?
Curiously, Bonsall’s column offered one hint as to a possible lifeline for Santee Cooper – although our guess is this prospect (a deal with Atlanta-based Southern Company) is likely to spark another political firestorm once lawmakers become aware of it.
“We are exploring additional joint efficiencies under a memorandum of understanding with Southern Company,” Bonsall wrote in his column.
Wait … what?
For those of you who missed it, Santee Cooper attempted to enter into precisely such a “memorandum of understanding” with Southern a year ago. However, the utility was explicitly rebuked in those efforts by powerful state senator Hugh Leatherman and governor Henry McMaster.
Their argument? That such negotiations violated a law passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2019 to oversee bids for the utility.
We concurred … and supported Leatherman and McMaster in their efforts to hold the utility accountable. Santee Cooper backed down at the time, but it appears as though its leaders have continued to negotiate with Southern anyway.
It should … defying lawmakers is Santee Cooper’s modus operandi.
The problem? Even if Santee comes to an agreement with Southern (the legality of which would almost certainly be challenged), such a deal is unlikely to result in its salvation.
Remember, Southern is currently neck deep in its own NukeGate – the delayed construction of a pair of reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle electric generating plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.
Even if Southern is able to finish this project, the cost of the power it hopes to provide must now be priced at a premium – one Santee Cooper is in no position to pay. And again, any agreement reached between these two utilities is likely to be a non-starter legally.
Stay tuned … this news outlet will continue keeping close tabs on these developments (particularly legislative reaction to the news that Santee Cooper appears to be going behind the back of the S.C. General Assembly).
Once a rogue agency, always a rogue agency …
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