Santee Cooper

Santee Cooper's Cross plant is the largest coal burning power plant left in South Carolina. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — The S.C. Legislature will determine the fate of Santee Cooper and plot the future for hundreds of thousands of electric customers by the middle of next year. 

Lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed Tuesday to a timeline for reviewing final purchase offers and management proposals for the state-run utility. 

The agreement requires the Department of Administration — the state's procurement agency — to solicit bids from outside companies and to present the top proposals to lawmakers between January and March of next year. 

It will then be up to the state's 170 legislators to decide if South Carolina offloads the public utility, hires another company to manage it or continues to run Santee Cooper under state control. 

For months, lawmakers squabbled over the idea of selling the state-run utility, which has electrified homes and businesses in South Carolina for more than eight decades.

But they ultimately agreed to allow the state's procurement agency to handle the bidding process. The decision ensures that a significant chuck of next year's legislative session will be taken up by a complicated and confrontational debate over the utility, a relic of the New Deal-era. 

"We all, to a person here, acknowledge that we've never been down this road before. We are in uncharted territory as a state," said Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway. 

The vote next year will determine who is providing electricity to Santee Cooper's roughly 179,000 customers and the 20 electric cooperatives the utility sells power to in the state. It could also affect Santee Cooper's current and former employees, depending on the terms of each deal. 

As a result, the companies interested in purchasing or managing Santee Cooper will need to provide lawmakers with a 20-year projection of power costs they plan to pass onto customers. 

The bidders will also need to lay out how many employees at Santee Cooper could be laid off in the first five years if the utility is sold or enters a management agreement.

It will be up to those same companies to decide if they want to submit a proposal to buy Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, which are also owned by Santee Cooper. 

Several of the country's largest investor-owned utilities have already confirmed their interest in owning or managing Santee Cooper. That includes Duke Energy, NextEra Energy, Southern Company and Dominion Energy. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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