COLUMBIA — For 15 days, South Carolina's utility regulators reviewed testimony and sorted through mountains of evidence on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project in order to decide how much S.C. Electric & Gas customers should pay for two unfinished reactors.
But as the high-stakes hearing wrapped up last week, the utility regulators were asked to consider one more thing.
Dominion Energy wanted the commissioners to review a new offer that would allow the Virginia-based energy company to seal its proposed takeover of SCE&G's parent, SCANA Corp. It was the third plan Dominion pitched to regulators.
Less than four days later, SCANA announced another deal — this time with several law firms that were suing the company in a class action lawsuit on behalf of SCE&G ratepayers. That legal settlement threw support behind Dominion's plans in the state Public Service Commission and is contingent upon the regulators giving the utilities what they want.
With a decision from regulators due by Dec. 21, here's some explanation of what this dual settlement offer could mean for ratepayers, who have already dumped more than $2 billion into the abandoned nuclear project and who face paying more in the future.
What does Dominion's latest offer in the Public Service Commission include?
The initial plan from Dominion called for the average SCE&G ratepayer to receive a roughly $1,000 refund check but required customers to pay another $3.8 billion for the reactors.
Dominion has since offered to do away with the refund checks if the utility commissioners don't like the idea. Instead, the company offered to further reduce how much customers pay for the abandoned reactors moving forward.
Under the more recent plan, residential and business ratepayers would be required to pay another $2.3 billion for the reactors over the next two decades.
The average residential ratepayer under that plan would pay more than $7 a month to the unfinished power project, according to the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state's utility watchdog agency.
It is a decrease from what people paid last year, when the average customer doled out more than $25 per month for the failed project.
But it will require the average SCE&G customer to pay more than $1,600 each for the reactors before the debt is paid off in 20 years.
What other plans are the state's utility regulators considering?
The Office of Regulatory Staff is sticking to its plan. Customers will still have to pay for the reactors moving forward, due to the 2007 state law that allowed SCE&G to charge customers in advance for the project.
But under the utility watchdog's plan, the average residential ratepayers would kick in a little more than $5 per month for the failed project.
Overall, all SCE&G's customers will pay back $1.7 billion over the next two decades under that plan, according to the Office of Regulatory Staff.
Other groups in the Public Service Commission case are still pushing for more savings for SCE&G's ratepayers. But if the regulators choose any of these plans, Dominion says it will walk away from its deal with SCANA.
It's up to the utility commissioners to decide the issue before Christmas.
What does the new settlement in the class action lawsuit do?
The press release announcing the pending legal settlement mentioned $2 billion in rate relief for SCE&G customers. But that money was already part of the deal that Dominion put forward in the Public Service Commission.
In reality, SCANA and the trial attorneys representing SCE&G ratepayers plan to settle the high-stakes case for $115 million, which matches the money set aside in golden parachutes for SCANA executives let go after the Dominion sale, and whatever money can be made from the sale of several SCANA properties, including an office in downtown Charleston.
It's a far cry from the $2 billion in damages they sought earlier, but the law firms representing SCE&G ratepayers say the settlement avoids years of costly litigation. An even bigger concern, they told the judge in the case, is that SCANA would go bankrupt and they wouldn't be able to collect any damages.
If the settlement is approved, former and current SCE&G ratepayers will be compensated based on how much they paid into failed nuclear project. Instructions on how to join the class action lawsuit will be sent out in the mail or via email.
It's unclear at this point how many customers the settlement money will be split between. SCE&G currently has more than 700,000 customers, and the nuclear payments have lasted a decade.
The law firms that pushed the case, however, will ask the judge to allow them to pocket a chunk of that money too. Those attorneys have yet to say how much they will collect to cover the litigation costs, which included months of discovery.
SCANA, for its part, gets to end the risky litigation and walk away without admitting any guilt.
Who is supporting the offers in court and the Public Service Commission?
South Carolina's House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, was hinting at his support for Dominion's more recent offers even before the hearings started in the Public Service Commission last month.
Now, he's backing the latest rates Dominion put on the table. He's doing so because the monthly bills Dominion is offering is right around the temporary rates the Legislature forced SCANA to implement this summer.
He's not the only elected official to get on board. Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson also blessed the settlement in the class action lawsuit. For more than a year, Wilson's office pushed for a court ruling that deemed the 2007 Base Load Review Act unconstitutional.
The judge in the class action lawsuit was reportedly on the cusp of doing just that.
But the settlement will end that possibility, and Wilson says it "resolves the injury that SCE&G customers suffered." SCE&G ratepayers will have an opportunity to weigh in on that legal settlement in the coming months and to tell the judge whether they believe it resolves their financial injuries.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the amount of money ratepayers would need to pay for the nuclear reactors under Dominion and the Office of Regulatory Staff's plans.