Top Santee Cooper officials said Wednesday they are reluctant to build a new coal-fired power plant near Florence but feel they have no choice given the region's future energy needs.

The comments marked a shift in the heated debate over the coal plant. In the past, Santee Cooper leaders have expressed few misgivings about the $1.25 billion project.

But in a wide-ranging discussion with The Post and Courier editorial board and reporters, Lonnie Carter, Santee Cooper president and chief executive officer, said he wasn't "excited about building a coal plant, but I don't have a better option."

Instead, he and O.L. Thompson, Santee Cooper's board chairman, would have preferred to focus on nuclear power. "We don't want to build a coal plant," Thompson said. "We think nuclear is the answer."

Both said, however, that they're concerned about the many regulatory and political hurdles facing the utility no matter what they do.

Carter said he's even concerned that the agency's effort to focus on offshore wind power could be hamstrung by some environmental groups.

"We have to fight so many wars," Thompson said, adding that recent coverage of Santee Cooper-related issues in The Post and Courier "isn't helping."

Santee Cooper is seeking permits to build two 600 megawatt coal-fired generators on the Great Pee Dee River near Pamplico.

The state-owned utility had hoped to have one generator online by 2012, but Thompson said 2014 is the earliest it could begin producing electricity.

While the plant has strong support in some business sectors, it has generated opposition from conservation groups, Gov. Mark Sanford and the head of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Last month, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control board gave Santee Cooper a green light for an air pollution permit, though many DHEC board members said they had serious concerns about the project. Santee Cooper still needs a state water permit and approval from the Army Corps of Engineers before it can begin construction.

Carter and Thompson said Santee Cooper needs to find new ways to meet the region's energy needs within a few years, or the utility may run short of power.

They said the utility has spent millions of dollars on new biomass plants and expects to spend about $1 million on a study to determine the feasibility of offshore wind power.

Its biggest investment, however, is in a plan to build a new nuclear plant with SCANA at an existing nuclear facility north of Columbia. Carter said the utility has spent $100 million on that project so far and expects to spend another $300 million in the coming year.

But trying to restart the nuclear industry has its share of permitting pitfalls and risks, Carter said.

New plant designs make nuclear generators safer and more reliable, but nuclear plants still face vocal opposition. Thompson said the agency hopes to get the nuclear plant online by 2017, "but I'd be surprised if we make it by 2018. We are doing all we can. If someone can come up with a better solution, I would be tickled to death."

Blan Holman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a group suing to block the Pee Dee coal plant, said even if the nuclear plant isn't built for 10 years, Santee Cooper could meet its energy needs with "a robust efficiency program, renewable power and natural gas. Coal is a bridge to nowhere except higher electricity bills."

Carter and Thompson said coal still has a future in South Carolina, adding that he thinks it makes more sense for the environment to build a new coal plant with the latest emissions controls. "Maybe we can park those 1960s (coal-fired) units," Thompson said. "The faster we can get the new unit built, the better it will be for the environment."