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Santee Cooper approves reform plan. It will remain secret for now.

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Santee Cooper voted to approve a still secret plan, which the utility's leaders hope will avert a possible sale by the South Carolina Legislature. File/Staff

Santee Cooper's leaders finalized a plan they hope will keep the utility under state control and avert a possible sale by the S.C. Legislature. 

The board of directors for Santee Cooper voted unanimously Thursday to send the new plan to the state's 170 lawmakers, who will hold the utility's fate in their hands next year. 

The details of the highly consequential proposal to reform Santee Cooper remain a secret for now.

The Department of Administration, under the Legislature's guidance, ordered Santee Cooper to keep the specifics of its plan under wraps until early next year. 

After the board spent more than two hours in executive session, Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall said the utility is under "strict confidentiality requirements." 

When the state's lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they will be provided with three separate proposals.

The first will be Santee Cooper's plan to keep the utility under state ownership. The second will be from a company interested in managing and running the day-to-day operations of Santee Cooper for the state. The third will be a bid from another company interested in taking over and privatizing the 85-year-old public utility. 

All of those bids are due Monday, but the contents of each won't be disclosed until three consulting firms hired by the Legislature have a chance to review the plans and submit recommendations to state lawmakers. 

Kelly Coakely, a spokeswoman for the Administration Department, said the highly anticipated bids for Santee Cooper will likely need to be in the Legislature's hands by at least Jan. 15. 

The offers are expected to set off a hotly contested political debate in the Statehouse where lawmakers will need to consider the implications of offloading one of the state's largest assets. 

Some of the country's largest investor-owned electric utilities have already confirmed they will submit an offer for Santee Cooper. That includes Florida-based NextEra Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy, which already operates two utilities in South Carolina. 

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Santee Cooper owns Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. It manages water systems that supply homes and businesses in several counties in the Lowcountry. It also operates a utility that sells electricity to more than 183,000 direct customers and South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives. 

The state-run utility has been at the center of a political firestorm for more than two years. It was the minority owner of the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project in Fairfield County. 

Santee Cooper and its partner SCANA Corp. canceled that project in July 2017 after spending more than $9 billion on the unfinished nuclear reactors. The nuclear project is now considered one of the largest economic crises in state history, and opened the door for Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, to call for the sale of Santee Cooper. 

Santee Cooper continues to charge its ratepayers for part of the nuclear project and is facing a class-action lawsuit brought against the utility by its ratepayers and the individual members of the 20 electric cooperatives.  

In recent months, Santee Cooper has brought on a new executive leadership team led by Bonsall, who worked at a public utility in Arizona for more than 40 years. 

Bonsall and his team announced plans in September to close some of the utility's aging coal-fired power plants and add new solar and gas-fired turbines over the next decade. They also began paying down Santee Cooper's more than $7 billion bond debt and pledged not to raise electric rates for Santee Cooper customers for at least five years. 

The proposal Santee Cooper submitted to the Administration Department on Thursday is expected to go even further. They want to show state lawmakers the public utility is capable of operating in the future without dramatically raising its customers monthly power bills. 

Dan Ray, Santee Cooper's chairman, thanked the utility's employees in developing the new reform plan. He said the new proposal would "guide the future of Santee Cooper."

"There were a lot of people working around the clock on this," Ray said. "We know it has been a difficult and stressful two months."

Santee Cooper customers, employees and retirees have been closely following the political push to sell the state-run utility. They will now have to wait until January to see how Santee Cooper's offer stacks up against the other bidders.

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

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