1-VC Summer Sept 18 2017 IMG_0482 for pc-101517-bz-scanaboard (copy) (copy)

SCE&G halted work at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion last year. Provided.

With a high-stakes hearing over South Carolina’s nuclear debacle in its final days, Dominion Energy sought to cut a last-minute deal Tuesday to resolve a $5 billion question that looms over hundreds of thousands of electricity users.

Under Dominion’s latest offer to win state approval for its plans to buy South Carolina Electric & Gas and its parent company, Cayce-based SCANA Corp., SCE&G customers still would pay billions of dollars over the next two decades for the utility’s failed nuclear project. But the offer also would essentially lock in a government-mandated rate cut that slashed their bills earlier this year.

State lawmakers ordered SCE&G to cut its rates by 15 percent in August, wiping out most of the impact of the nuclear project on customers’ bills. The latest proposal from the Virginia-based energy giant Dominion, which is trying to buy SCE&G, would keep rates at that level, saving its more than 700,000 customers about $22 on the average monthly bill.

In return, Dominion would give up refund checks — worth about $1,000 for a typical home — that Dominion proposed when it first offered to buy SCE&G.

And instead of tapering off over time, rates would stay the same for two decades.

When customers stop paying for the nuclear project 20 years from now, they’ll have paid almost $2.3 billion in all, according to Dominion, which offered to buy SCANA in January. That compares to a more aggressive rate-cut plan proposed by the state's utility watchdog, which would leave ratepayers on the hook for $783 million.

Either sum would be tacked onto the more than $2 billion electricity users have already paid over the past decade, while SCE&G tried to build a pair of nuclear reactors north of Columbia.

The Tuesday proposal is one of a series Dominion has made to resolve one of the biggest financial questions South Carolina has ever faced: Who should pay for the failed project at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, a $9 billion boondoggle that SCE&G owned most of.

The answer will ultimately come from seven utility regulators on the state’s Public Service Commission. They have spent this month holding hearings about how the nuclear project careened into disaster and what utility executives knew about its problems before halting construction last summer.

Regulators could decide to stop the nuclear-related payments all together. They have until Dec. 21 to rule, but after more than two weeks of testimony, their hearings are almost over.

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The proposal came on the same afternoon that a pair of SCE&G whistleblowers took the stand to accuse executives of lying to regulators and low-balling the project’s cost to string it along. And it came a day before one of those executives will take the stand to answer questions from an army of attorneys.

It’s the second offer Dominion has made this month as it looks to answer the nuclear question with a settlement with SCE&G’s opponents, not a ruling by state regulators. The most recent offer didn’t immediately win the support of key parties, such as the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state’s utility watchdog agency.

“The Office of Regulatory Staff has asked for more information about Dominion’s new proposal. We’ve always been open to negotiations that satisfy our conditions protecting ratepayer interests,” said Ron Aiken, a spokesman for the agency.

Dominion says it has agreed to some of those conditions, like eating the cost of SCE&G’s legal bills as it defends its handling of the project.

Among those commitments, it says: “open and transparent communication” with regulators.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.