South Carolina Electric & Gas isn’t sure when it will move forward with a plan to charge customers for its scuttled nuclear construction project, but executives made clear to investors that the power company would do so eventually.
Kevin Marsh, the chief executive of SCE&G parent SCANA Corp., told Wall Street analysts Wednesday that the utility "didn’t draw any lines in the sand" with lawmakers about how long it would wait before moving to formally ditch its effort to expand the V.C. Summer power plant.
Marsh’s comments came the day after SCE&G decided it would hold off on asking state regulators for permission to charge ratepayers $2.2 billion for the project. Its customers have already paid about $1.4 billion for two half-built reactors near Columbia.
The decision to delay its request came as SCE&G was facing rising pressure from lawmakers who vowed to investigate the failed project and said the company was moving too fast. By pulling its request, the company essentially bought the Legislature time to decide what to do about the reactors.
"We want to give them time to complete their process. We have discussed that there would be a time in the future that we would need to refile," Marsh told analysts. "We didn’t draw any lines in the sand. We didn’t want to get out in front of them."
SCE&G initially filed its plans to charge customers for the project two weeks ago, shortly after announcing it was walking away from the reactors. Regulators only had six months to consider the proposal, meaning lawmakers would have little time to work when they reconvened in January.
The General Assembly will start to look into the project next week when a pair of committees meets to hold their first hearings on the demise of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion. Lawmakers have formed two special panels devoted to the project, and a separate regulatory committee is looking into it, too.
Still, it’s not clear that Wall Street expects much to change when SCE&G files its request to raise electricity rates again. SCANA's stock closed essentially unchanged Wednesday, suggesting that investors didn’t see any new risks on the horizon, even if a long review was on the way.
"We view this as a prudent move in light of the political and public outcry over V.C. Summer," Wells Fargo analyst Neil Kalton wrote in a research note. "We think the petition withdrawal likely means that this will be a deliberate (lengthy) process."
The delay could also buy time for a series of efforts to revive the project, though Marsh has said several hurdles stand in the way of getting construction going again.
On Wednesday's call, Marsh continued to cast doubts on the prospect, saying it would take at least a year to start it back up. That's how long it would take to negotiate new construction contracts and get regulatory approval for a project that's now expected to cost double the initial estimates and take years longer than expected.
And that timeline, Marsh said, would only start when SCE&G found a new partner to work on the project. It had been working with the state-run Santee Cooper, but the Moncks Corner-based power utility backed out late last month.
Gov. Henry McMaster is trying to restart construction by offering to sell Santee Cooper or its 45 percent share of the V.C. Summer project. In a letter to Santee Cooper's board this week, McMaster said he had "heard from a number of entities" interested in buying the utility, and he called on the agency to give them the information they asked for.
Separately, Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter sent a letter to dozens of utilities last week asking if they wanted to buy a share in the scuttled nuclear reactors.
"As I am sure you have read in recent news accounts, construction of the V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 has been suspended," Carter wrote in the four-sentence letter. "If you have any interest in discussing the potential purchase of an ownership interest in these units, please contact me."