Mark Bonsall CEO Santee Cooper (copy)

Mark Bonsall, the new CEO of Santee Cooper, plans to add solar power, cut coal generation and pay down nuclear debt. File/Andrew Brown/Staff

To stave off a possible sale, Santee Cooper plans to overhaul its business by adding a large amount of solar energy, weighing a new gas-fired power plant and studying a cost-sharing arrangement with an investor-owned utility.

Mark Bonsall, the new CEO of Santee Cooper, planned to roll out the state-run utility’s new strategy last week at a board meeting, but those plans were set aside when Hurricane Dorian came spinning up the coast.

Word of Santee Cooper’s newly developed plans, however, reached state lawmakers and set off a dispute between Bonsall and Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican who is considered the most powerful legislator in the state.

Leatherman was particularly concerned about a new agreement between Santee Cooper and Southern Co., one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the Southeast.

Santee Cooper’s new leaders are working with Southern’s subsidiaries to find ways the companies could jointly manage their fuel supplies, purchasing, energy trading and coal ash waste.

But the Department of Administration — the agency that is handling the bids for Santee Cooper — argued such an agreement would “disrupt, bias or circumvent” state lawmakers’ plans. The Legislature intends to vote early next year on whether to sell Santee Cooper, hire another company to manage it or keep the utility under state control.

“We cannot and will not permit any additional efforts by Santee Cooper to advantage itself at the cost of process integrity,” said Marci Adams, the Department of Administration’s director.

Bonsall and Santee Cooper’s chairman, Dan Ray, pushed back in letters — one of which was sent to every state lawmaker.

They pointed out that Southern did not plan to take part in the bidding process. Santee Cooper, they added, was doing what the Legislature asked the utility to do: plot a possible path forward and to find cost-saving measures for its customers.

“These efforts are all designed to make Santee Cooper going forward, whether the General Assembly determines to sell Santee Cooper or allows its ongoing existence, the highest possible value for South Carolina,” Ray told lawmakers.

Bonsall focused his letter on all the other ways that Santee Cooper is attempting to reform the business, which manages electricity to roughly 183,000 ratepayers and supplies power to the state’s 20 electric cooperatives.

Last week, Santee Cooper informed roughly 180 employees at the Winyah generating station near Georgetown that the coal-fired power plant would be phased out in the coming decade. But that’s not all Santee Cooper is changing.

The 85-year-old public utility plans to increase its solar capacity by 500 percent, adding more than 1,000 megawatts of power from new solar arrays.

It’s also considering gaining another 100 megawatts of power from a turbine, which could be fueled by natural gas.

Even with these additional plans, the state-run utility will be able to hold down the monthly bills for its customers and the co-ops, Bonsall said.

The new leadership team at Santee Cooper expects to freeze rates where they are over the next five years. It is also planning to pay down chunks of the roughly $4 billion debt tied to the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.

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The failed reactors in Fairfield County are the reason lawmakers are considering a possible sale of Santee Cooper.

But Bonsall pointed out that Santee Cooper already paid down $430 million of that debt and plans to write off another $500 million by next year. Even more could be paid off if Santee Cooper is able to sell any remaining parts and equipment left at the nuclear construction site.

But that didn’t satisfy the electric cooperatives— Santee Cooper’s largest customers.

In a statement, Lawrence Hinz, the chairman of Central Electric Power Cooperative, said Santee Cooper’s agreement with Southern “endangers” the entire process. He also accused them of potentially squandering the $20 million the state and Santee Cooper customers paid for the outside consultants to advise state lawmakers.

“Undermining the fairness of the (Department of Administration’s) process is the most damaging thing a participant could do,” Hinz said.

The Santee Cooper board will meet Monday to formally vote on Bonsall’s reform measures. More is likely to follow.

Bonsall and his team will submit a formal bid to keep Santee Cooper under state control in November. Then it’s up to lawmakers to decide if they’ve done enough.

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