Nearly a year after a failed nuclear project raised enormous questions about South Carolina's energy sector, the state is still far from answering them.
That was the takeaway of an energy summit Thursday that was organized by The Post and Courier on the future of the state’s energy policy. South Carolina has taken a few steps forward, experts say, but electricity issues could stay top-of-mind for years.
The Legislature hasn't yet passed a law addressing the demise of the V.C. Summer project, an ambitious effort to build a pair of nuclear reactors north of Columbia. And their debate has homed in on who should pay for the $9 billion fiasco, which was led by South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper.
That question is still burning in Columbia, where lawmakers are negotiating a deal to cut SCE&G's electricity rates. But it doesn’t address the longer-term question: How will South Carolina replace two enormous reactors? And does it need to?
"The backward-looking struggle that's an important one is over roughly $9 billion. South Carolinians pay between $7 and $8 billion a year for electric service" — or about $80 billion over a decade, said Eddy Moore, director of energy and climate at the Coastal Conservation League. "My hope is that we shift the focus from, 'What about the nine?' to, 'What about the 80?'"
Those issues started to bubble up in the Legislature this year, but ultimately failed to reach the governor's desk. Lawmakers considered a measure that would expand incentives for solar power, for instance, before the plan was torpedoed in the House.
Power plants that burn natural gas are also expected to help fill the void created by the nuclear failure. SCE&G, for instance, recently closed on a deal to buy a gas plant in Gaston, and it has suggested to regulators that it might look to build another in the next several years.
South Carolina's focus on energy policy is a mixed bag, said Chris Carnevale, coastal climate and energy manager at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who called it "the worst of times, the best of times."
The state has at once a chance to overhaul its energy policy, Carnevale says, thanks to the enormous public attention on its electric utilities and evolving technology in renewables. But that attention has come at a steep cost.
SCE&G electricity users pay nearly a fifth of their bills into the nuclear project, and Santee Cooper’s customers pay nearly 5 percent of their rates into the unfinished reactors, a number that’s expected to rise.
That might also keep the public’s attention on electricity for some time: SCE&G and Santee Cooper ratepayers are likely to be on the hook for the nuclear project for decades.