PINOPOLIS — South Carolina's electric cooperatives want Santee Cooper to study if coal is the cheapest way to provide electricity to customers, questioning whether the state-run utility should cease operating some of its aging coal-fired power plants.
Officials with Central Electric Power, the group that negotiates power prices for all 20 co-ops, pressured utility Santee Cooper on Monday into reviewing whether to shutter one coal boiler at Cross Station on the banks of Lake Moultrie.
And they proposed studying the future of four other coal-fired units at Winyah Station near Georgetown.
"Because of economics — I won't even say environmental — most organizations are having to take a hard look at what they are going to do about coal," said Robert Hochstelter, Central Electric's chief executive.
"If we can't work together and figure out how we can save money, then we have problems," Hochstelter added.
Hochstetler's pitch was made in front of a 12-member board made up of six representatives from Santee Cooper and six representatives from the state's electric cooperatives.
The gathering agreed to analyze the Cross Station's Unit 2, which came online in 1983. But Santee Cooper's representatives balked at the idea of studying the viability of the entire Winyah Station, which has produced power since 1975.
Santee Cooper's leaders raised concerns about studying the future of the plants at a time when the S.C. Legislature continues to review offers by other companies to buy the state-run utility. They worried it would be seen as interference by the lawmakers — some of whom would like to offload the utility burdened by debt after a failed nuclear project north of Columbia.
"I'm not saying never do this. I am saying now is not the time," said James Brogdon, the interim chief executive of Santee Cooper.
"I think it is not in anybody's best interest for us to upset the General Assembly," added Peggy Pinnell, a Santee Cooper board member.
The official request from the cooperatives — Santee Cooper's largest customers — comes at a time when utilities across the country continue to ditch coal power for more efficient natural gas turbines and solar arrays.
More than 23,400 megawatts of coal-fired power were shuttered nationwide in the past two years, according to an analysis by Reuters, even as President Donald Trump's administration sought to cut regulations for the industry.
The cooperatives believe some of the power produced at Santee Cooper's coal plants could be replaced with power purchased from newer natural gas turbines. Hochstetler suggested subbing out a single coal-boiler at Cross Station could save the cooperatives' roughly 788,000 customers $100 million over 10 years.
The coal-fired Cross boiler and the Wynah plant being targeted by the cooperatives together produced only 5.4 percent of Santee Cooper's electricity in 2017. Santee Cooper has already closed two coal-fired plants. The utility said it has reduced the amount of electricity produced with coal from 81 percent to 42 percent.
The proposal to study other energy options also follows the cancellation of two unfinished nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer station.
Santee Cooper, the minority owner of those reactors, had planned to use the nuclear project to lessen its reliance on coal. But those hopes died when the troubled project was cancelled in 2017 and catapulted Santee Cooper and the cooperatives into litigation.
The state-run utility's refusal to review the future of the Winyah Station could now be added to the growing list of issues being resolved between the two groups in arbitration or litigation.