COLUMBIA — Legislators on Tuesday approved how they'll evaluate potential bids to buy Santee Cooper, giving the highest priority to an offer's impact on electricity rates.
The panel's votes cleared the way for companies to make formal bids to buy all or parts of South Carolina's only state-owned utility.
More than two dozen groups have shown interest, though not all are serious, said Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, co-chairman of the legislative committee created to weigh the utility's fate.
Those groups include the utility's biggest customer — the 20 electric cooperatives across the state.
"We certainly are interested in being part of that process," said Mike Couick, CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
The panel set a mid-January deadline for offers.
But that doesn't mean the panel is making any decisions on whether to sell.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he remains opposed to the idea unless evaluations show that Santee Cooper's ratepayers, employees and South Carolina as a whole would be better off.
Under state law, only the Legislature can sell any or all of Santee Cooper. The panel is tasked with making recommendations to the General Assembly.
ICF, a consulting firm hired by the panel, will evaluate the proposals and determine what the utility's assets are worth.
Lawmakers set a proposed purchase price as second in importance.
Other evaluation criteria include a potential buyer's plans for retaining existing employees, whether operations would continue locally, a company's utility experience, its financial strength and what would happen to employees' pensions.
But first a company must meet a pass-fail test. An application won't be considered at all if a company doesn't have adequate experience or financial backing. It also must spell out how it will pay off Santee Cooper's roughly $8 billion debt and exactly which assets the company wants to buy.
Those assets include Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, which occupy 167,000 acres, as well as 34 public recreation sites, 25,500 acres of forest and 11,700 acres of land set aside as wildlife habitat.
If a company doesn't want to buy the hydroelectric plants, which make up a tiny percentage of the utility's total power generation, a proposal could involve the state taking over the lakes, Campbell said.
Saddling taxpayers with any of the utility's debt is not an option, he said.
Half of that debt stems from a failed nuclear power plant project in Fairfield County. The state-owned utility and South Carolina Electric & Gas, the majority owner, abandoned two partially built reactors at V.C. Summer in July 2017 after jointly spending $9 billion.
Customers have been funding the debacle through their electricity bills since 2009.
Earlier this year, legislators approved a temporary, 15 percent rate cut for SCE&G customers. State regulators could decide next month to make those permanent.