Hugh Leatherman

Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, is surrounded by other senators during a debate over Santee Cooper last month. 

COLUMBIA — After weeks of debate, South Carolina lawmakers agreed to seek official bids for Santee Cooper, opening up the possibility the 85-year-old power provider could be purchased or managed by an investor-owned utility in the future. 

Senators voted 42 to 1 Thursday to pass a bill that will order the state's procurement agency to seek out buyers for the state's only public utility.

The plan also requires state officials to solicit offers from companies that want to manage the day-to-day operations at Santee Cooper, and it gives the utility's current leadership the chance to present a plan to keep the operation under state control. 

Ultimately, it will be up to the entire Legislature to decide the fate of the power provider. All of that could come to a head next year after the Department of Administration has time to review the various offers and report back to lawmakers.

Their final decision will determine where 179,000 Santee Cooper customers and the state's 20 electric cooperatives get their power.

Santee Cooper was the minority owner of two failed nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County. The future of the utility has been up in the air since that project was cancelled nearly two years ago. 

Gov. Henry McMaster has waged a public campaign to sell the utility, and leaders in the South Carolina House have seemingly warmed to that idea over the past year. 

A number of senators, however, are opposed to offloading the state-owned outlet. In recent weeks, employees and retirees from the utility traveled to Columbia to pressure lawmakers to hold onto it. 

Sen. Larry Grooms, whose district includes Santee Cooper's headquarters in Moncks Corner, spent more than an hour Thursday arguing against the Senate's plan. He was the only senator to vote against the bill. 

"I cannot think of a good reason today to solicit binding bids for Santee Cooper," the Republican lawmaker  said. 

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the utility's more than $7 billion in bond debt and what that could mean for customers' future power bills.

There's no evidence at this point that an investor-owned utility would provide cheaper power than what Santee Cooper can offer on its own. 

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That's why the Senate's leadership plans to require the potential bidders to provide a long list of information to the state's procurement agency. 

Lawmakers want to ensure the bidders are financially stable. They want to see their specific plans for paying off Santee Cooper's debt. And they want the companies to supply a 20-year projection that lays what power plants they will rely on to light homes and businesses throughout the state. 

"We are telling them we need these details before we can make a decision on this," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. 

The Senate wants each bidder to announce how many employees at Santee Cooper might be terminated if the utility is sold. They also want to know if the headquarters will remain in Moncks Corner or in another location in South Carolina. 

No matter what happens, the Senate does not plan to sell Santee Cooper's hydroelectric dams. They also want to retain Lakes Marion and Moultrie. 

The House and Senate still need to smooth out the differences between their two plans in the final days of the legislative session, which ends next Thursday. 

But the Senate's vote all but guarantees the state will start fielding bids before the end of the year. 

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