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Forget the $1,000 checks. SC ratepayers could pay SCE&G millions more in 2021.

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COLUMBIA — A group of state lawmakers and a number of customers continue to gripe about the fact Dominion Energy isn't going to send out $1,000 checks as the utility giant promised before it took over South Carolina Electric & Gas in the wake of the state's nuclear boondoggle.

Nothing can be changed, however. The S.C. Public Service Commission — the state's utility regulators — settled that issue after Dominion and House Speaker Jay Lucas agreed it was better for customers to have lower power bills over the next 20 years than to get a $1,000 check at present.

Instead of focusing on the checks, SCE&G customers and state legislators might want to brace for a big hit to the wallet in two years. 

That's when Dominion is expected to come back to the Public Service Commission and ask for a new multimillion rate increase to pay for nearly a decade of improvements, storm damage and other costs that SCE&G covered on its own while undertaking the nuclear project north of Columbia.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, is concerned the request will be substantial, angering SCE&G customers even further. 

"We knew that Dominion was going to file this. This is not surprising," said Massey, who has been an outspoken critic of Dominion. "The real concern is that it's going to be a pretty big one."

SCE&G's 720,000 customers paid more than $2 billion for the failed nuclear project before it was canceled in July 2017. And they'll pay another $2.3 billion over the next 20 years for the unfinished reactors.

But not one cent of that was for financing new utility poles, power plant repairs or other costs that allowed the company to continually supply SCE&G customers with electricity. SCE&G's former leadership didn't ask customers to pay for those growing costs while the nuclear reactors were under construction.

But that decision ended along with the project. And SCE&G's new owners will have the right to ask for that money soon.

As part of its deal to take over SCE&G, Dominion agreed not to request another rate increase until 2021. When they do, they will likely be asking to increase customers monthly bills even more.

Dominion's CEO Thomas Farrell admitted as much last week on an earnings call with the company's Wall Street investors. 

The company needs to be paid for any new infrastructure they installed since 2012 and they need to account for the inflation costs since that time. If labor, maintenance or other costs increased, customers bills will have to go up to pay for that. 

It's unclear exactly how much money Dominion will seek. 

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Here's some perspective: The last time SCE&G asked to be reimbursed for these type of costs in 2012 its customers ended up paying an extra $151 million per year. 

This time around, Dominion will likely be asking to include eight years of infrastructure investment that SCE&G has already undertaken and any money that was spent over that time period to respond from natural disasters.

Rhonda O'Banion, SCE&G's spokeswoman, added that any savings from the takeover by Dominion would also be factored in. But it's unclear if those saving would offset the company's costs. 

Customers already are expecting bigger bills. 

"Dominion appeared to be a white knight, but down the road they will do well and make their money back," said Stuart Kimball, a Mount Pleasant business owner. "They're just going to get it in a different way (than the nuclear charges), but, so what, I'm going to be paying more."

Still, there is nothing abnormal about a utility asking for a rate increase. It is how regulated utilities in South Carolina largely operate. They spend the money first, and then they ask the state's utility regulators to put those costs into customers' bills. 

Duke Power's two subsidiaries in South Carolina, for instance, just asked to increase the average customers monthly bills by $14 and $17 per month to cover similar costs. 

It's up to the Office of Regulatory Staff — the state's utility watchdog agency — and the seven state utility regulators to make sure the companies are only being paid for legitimate expenses. 

They have to scour through the utilities' accounting records to make sure nothing is out of place. 

Instead, on Thursday, officials with the Office of Regulatory Staff had to attend a Public Service Commission hearing to explain why Dominion wasn't passing out $1,000 checks — again. Dominion already announced plans for an ad campaign to explain the checks are not coming.

State regulators took no action.  

Andy Shain contributed to this report.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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