COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers agree on this much: They want to slash SCANA Corp.'s electricity rates in the wake of the company’s failed nuclear project.
But they can't agree on how much.
The state Senate moved Wednesday to make SCANA and its subsidiary, South Carolina Electric & Gas, eat more of the cost of its effort to expand the V.C. Summer nuclear plant — at least temporarily. Senators agreed that SCE&G's electricity rates should fall by 13 percent for the rest of the year, or about $19 a month for the typical home.
The Senate measure also requires the Cayce-based power provider to use any savings from the recent federal tax cuts to reduce customer bills.
With its vote, the Senate clashed with a similar measure passed by the state House, which demanded a bigger reduction. The House will now have to decide whether it's OK with the smaller rate cut or decide to negotiate a compromise with the Senate.
State representatives initially voted to cut SCE&G's power bills through the end of the year by 18 percent, which accounts for every dollar the utility charges its ratepayers for the V.C. Summer project. SCE&G takes in $37 million a month for its portion of the $9 billion project, which was called off midway last summer.
Neither chamber has proposed to reduce the nuclear-related rates permanently because lawmakers fear they could be rebuffed in court. Instead, they're trying to cut power bills while utility regulators hash out a long-term fix for the nuclear debacle. It's possible state regulators could cut the rates permanently.
The Senate decision came in the face of renewed lobbying efforts by Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based utility giant that's trying to buy SCANA. Dominion has threatened to walk away from the $14.6 billion deal if the Legislature passes a rate reduction. The company restarted an advertising campaign ahead of the Senate vote and released an economic-impact study that touted the sale's benefit to the state.
In a statement, Dominion reiterated that threat, saying the bill "could eliminate all of these benefits" if it becomes law.
SCANA said it was disappointed by the Senate's vote, and it said it would consider suing if the temporary rate cuts becomes law.
"SCANA continues to believe that combining with Dominion Energy provides the best resolution for our customers and the state of South Carolina," SCANA spokesman Eric Boomhower said.
Dominion's plan to buy SCANA includes a refund of most of the money ratepayers have put into the two partially built reactors north of Columbia, and it includes a partial rate cut. Under the Dominion plan, SCE&G would collect another $3.8 billion over the next 20 years — less than the status quo, but not low enough for lawmakers' liking.
SCE&G was allowed to collect money to build the reactors during construction under the Base Load Review Act, a law that sailed through the Legislature in 2007. After the project went belly-up, many legislators and Gov. Henry McMaster vowed to find a way to end collections for a pair reactors that will never work.
A pair of senators argued for hours this week to leave rates alone. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said they feared a rate cut pushed by the Legislature not only would lose an expected legal challenge but could damage state's reputation in attracting new industry.
"Let's let the process work itself out," Hutto said, adding later: "What we ought to think about doing here is doing no harm."
But the debate grew heated enough that Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, whose district include SCANA's headquarters, excoriated the utility for how it has acted since the project was called off. The Lexington Democrat said that SCANA could have prevented the Legislature's actions by cutting rates on its own.
"This issue is not about being mad at SCANA or taking retribution on SCANA," Setzler said. "This issue is about what's fair."
The final form of the legislation will likely be worked out by House and Senate negotiators, but McMaster has drawn a hard line. The governor says he won't sign a bill that lets SCE&G charge anything more for the nuclear project.
"He is not going to sign it if it does anything less than that," his spokesman Brian Symmes said.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, however, said he hoped the governor and the House would back down. The Senate's proposal was based on an economic analysis that sought to cut rates without sending SCE&G into a financial tailspin.
Lawmakers have yet to tackle what to do with Santee Cooper, the state-run utility that was a minority partner on the nuclear project. Santee Cooper is not under state utility regulation and has not been targeted for rate cuts by lawmakers.
But McMaster has been actively trying to sell the Moncks Corner-based utility because it is burdened with $8 billion in debt, about half of which comes from the nuclear project. The General Assembly, however, has final say on a sale.
The V.C. Summer nuclear project crumbled after cost overruns and construction delays with a contractor that had not undertaken such a large-scale project.
Internal documents showed leaders at SCANA and Santee Cooper knew about the problems soon after construction began, but they didn't fully air their concerns with regulators, investors or the public until after the project failed. The chief executives of SCANA and Santee Cooper retired after abandoning the project.
About 1.6 million electric customers in South Carolina are paying for the unfinished reactors that were supposed to mark a new age of nuclear power as coal-fired plants were shutting down.
"This by no means addresses all the issues with V.C. Summer," said Massey, an Edgefield Republican. "We still have to keep working on that."
Andrew Brown of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.