Armed with high power bills and a war chest of pent-up frustration, South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. customers lined up for a second night to light into the utility for requesting an almost 10 percent rate increase in the midst of a recession.
"In one of the worst economies in history, where are we going to get this money?" Tara O'Donnell of Charleston said to members of the S.C. Public Service Commission on Tuesday before a crowded meeting of about 200 irate ratepayers at the International Longshoremen's Association. "You cannot treat your customers as a blank check. I have to live within my means. SCE&G should too."
Customer Loretta Young said getting a bill from SCE&G every month was like getting a surprise in a Cracker Jack box.
"You don't know what you are going to get," she said. "If there was another place I could go, like with different cell phone companies, I would leave you in a minute. What y'all are doing is totally wrong."
Sandra Burley of Mount Pleasant, a stockholder of SCANA, SCE&G's parent company, said the higher electric rate won't affect just homeowners but businesses and industries too, and it will be passed onto consumers.
"In the light of tough economic times, I'm willing to forgo my dividend for the sake of others," she said.
To cheers for speakers and jeers for SCE&G, customers pointedly told the Public Service Commission that it needs to pull the plug on the company's request for the 9.52 percent surge in electric rates. If approved, average residential electric rates will rise by $140 a year by July 2011 after it is phased in over 12 months starting in July.
The utility says it needs more than $1 billion from ratepayers to pay for $700 million in federally mandated environmental upgrades to its coal-fired power plants and a backup dam near Columbia, as well as $300 million or so to pay for transmission and distribution line improvements, profits to investors and other expenses.
The SCANA-owned utility found $111 million in savings through cutbacks, salary freezes and other measures, but the company said it is not enough to prevent a rate hike, one that the utility postponed a year because of the dire economy in 2009.
"We asked what we thought was fair and reasonable," SCE&G President and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Marsh said during a break as he watched proceedings from the back of the room.
Still, the utility handed out bonuses to some corporate and salaried employees and never implemented furloughs or layoffs as many other companies across the state did to dent the recession's impact.
The proposed rate hike is in addition to an already approved 2 percent per year average increase in electric rates over the next decade to pay the $10 billion cost to build two new nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer generating station north of Columbia.
About half of SCE&G's 655,000 electric customers live in the four counties of the greater Charleston area, and the proposed rate increase has caught the attention of local lawmakers as well.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, recently introduced a bill that would require the General Assembly to have the final say on utility rate increases.
Rep. Annette Young, R-Summerville, requested the public hearing in Summerville earlier this week, saying the recession is affecting everybody and asked Public Service Commission members to take that into consideration.
Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, said people are struggling, and granting the increase will hurt them more.
The fight now moves to the Midlands with a public hearing in Graniteville near Aiken on May 6 and another in Columbia at the Public Service Commission's headquarters on May 24. The commission will render a final decision by mid-July.
How much, when and what for
Bill for average residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity:
--January 2005: $92.40
--July 2011: $130.48*
*Estimate if the proposed rate increase is approved; does not include an average 2 percent-per-year increase scheduled for October to pay for two new nuclear power units.
Residential rate hike schedule:
--July 15, 2010: $3.91 per month 3.24 percent increase
--Jan. 1, 2011: $3.77 per month 3.11 percent increase
--July 1, 2011: $4.01 per month 3.33 percent increase*
*Based on current rates. The overall increase of 9.52 percent includes commercial and industrial customers.
What would the rate hike pay for?
--Environmental mandates/property taxes 62 percent
--Transmission/distribution improvements 18 percent
--Tree-trimming and system maintenance 9 percent
--Returns to investors and other expenses 11 percent
--May 6: 6 p.m., Aiken Technical College Amphitheater, 2276 Jefferson Davis Highway, Graniteville
--May 24: 6 p.m., S.C. Public Service Commission, 101 Executive Center Drive, Columbia
--Formal hearing: May 24-27,10:30 a.m., 101 Executive Center Drive, Columbia
--Final decision: July 15
For complaints (deadline May 24)
South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff
1401 Main St., Suite 900
Columbia, SC 29201
Telephone: 803-737-5230 or 1-800-922-1531
On the Web: www.regulatorystaff.sc.gov
Public Service Commission of South Carolina
101 Executive Center Drive, Suite 100
Columbia, S.C. 29210
On the Web: www.psc.sc.gov
To view SCE&G's rate hike request online, go to:
www.psc.sc.gov. Click on DMS-Docket Management System and then Dockets Search Type in docket number 2009-489-E. The application was filed Jan. 15.
For help on SCE&G bills:
To learn more: www.sceg.com/ratefacts