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Editorial: Celebrate good news on Dominion rate hike, SC; the bad news isn't far behind

Dominion Power Bill

Dominion Energy has asked to delay its request to raise rates for S.C. customers — but only temporarily. Cindi Ross Scoppe/Staff

The good news, if you buy your electricity from Dominion Energy, is that your power bill won’t be going up while you’re out of work because of South Carolina’s coronavirus shutdown. You won’t even have to risk your health, and endanger others, in order to attend a public hearing to testify against the rate hike the utility had planned to request next month.

The bad news is that Dominion simply delayed its request; it will still ask for the hike, likely in August, and it very likely will get it.

Dominion deserves credit for recognizing that it would be inappropriate to raise rates with unemployment skyrocketing as major portions of our economy take what we hope will be a (relatively) brief holiday. We all should share in the pain borne of the social distancing needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and delaying a price increase is a small way to do that.

Of course, the company probably also saw the handwriting on the wall and decided there was no reason to further antagonize customers. As The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown reports, South Carolina’s utility commissioners had sent a March 18 letter to leading lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster asking for a delay in any pending rate cases during the pandemic.

The next day, four state senators made an even bigger request, asking the governor to order “a significant, immediate adjustment of all utility rates during this state of emergency.”

“In these times of emergency and shared sacrifice, many of our citizens have been asked to immediately surrender their livelihoods for the foreseeable future in furtherance of collective action to respond to this public health emergency,” wrote Sens. Dick Harpootlian, Brad Hutto, Floyd Nicholson and Margie Bright Matthews. Because of “the significant sacrifices so many individual South Carolinians are making, we believe our state’s largest corporate citizens should be called upon to sacrifice for the public good.”

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Ordering the Public Service Commission to cut utility rates doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Mr. McMaster would be inclined to do, but he seems to have that authority.

What he doesn’t have the authority to do, what no one has the authority to do, is stop Dominion from raising the rates that already include $2.3 billion over the next 20 years to pay for the construction project at the V.C. Summer nuclear station that predecessor SCE&G abandoned before being purchased by Dominion.

SCE&G already charged ratepayers more than $2 billion while it was attempting to construct two nuclear reactors, but that was to cover financing costs. It didn’t attempt to raise rates for operational costs after 2012 but instead banked those costs. That means it’ll be difficult if not impossible for the state Public Service Commission to turn down Dominion’s request to collect on those deferred rate hikes.

This isn’t to say that Dominion is doing anything wrong; the primary purpose of a corporation, after all, is to generate profits for its shareholders. But it’s a reminder that while a system of regulated monopolies might be great in theory, it only works well in practice if you have good regulations and good regulators — and as we have so painfully learned over the past few years, our Legislature historically has been unwilling to provide either. It’s especially important to remember that as long as the future of state-owned Santee Cooper is not fully settled.

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