When the powerful voice of SCE&G tells the S.C. Public Service Commission that it needs to raise rates — again — another voice should be haunting commissioners: the voice of SCE&G customers.
Across the state, customers have turned out to plead for help. If SCE&G gets the rate hike it wants, many who are already struggling in a down economy will be in serious financial trouble.
After all, if SCE&G gets its way, its rates will have increased by 40 percent since 2007 — from $101.10 per 100 KwH to $141.73.
And SCE&G already charges its customers considerably more than other utilities in the state.
The PSC might want to ask SCE&G to justify raising rates when its third-quarter profits were $132 million — 10 percent more than the third quarter of 2011 (after another rate hike).
SCE&G, a subsidiary of the Cayce-based SCANA Corporation, enjoys a monopoly in the areas of South Carolina it serves. As such, it is regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission, which can approve or deny rate increases.
The lobby for SCE&G is a formidable one with deep pockets. And many of the utility’s costs are not arguable, such as the construction of two huge nuclear facilities.
But the PSC can, and should, hold the company accountable for its operations. For example, customers should not have to pay for construction cost overruns that SCE&G could have avoided. It should not have to pay for board members to enjoy $50 glasses of Scotch at expensive restaurants, expenses discovered by auditors at the Office of Regulatory Staff.
There is work for the General Assembly to do, also, in finding ways to help people legislatively. For example, power customers elsewhere are saving money because the states in which they live allow solar leasing, even though it is not popular with utilities.
It works this way: Someone who wants solar panels but cannot afford the expense can work with a third-party financier, who gets state tax credits to pay for the expensive equipment and installation. The financier is paid with solar energy proceeds over the course of years. When the cost of the equipment is covered, he disappears from the equation, but the panels stay.
Solar leasing would put only a small dent in some customers’ need for electricity from SCE&G and other utilities. But it would encourage people to think about alternative energy sources, and that would be good for the people and the environment.
South Carolina needs dependable electricity for its citizens, businesses and economic well-being. But its citizens and businesses need to know that they are paying only what is fair and necessary for that electricity.
It’s up to the PSC, and ultimately the Legislature, to apply the needed scrutiny and enact appropriate laws to protect the people they serve.