It might be a little premature for SCE&G ratepayers to go ahead and spend the $27 per month the average customer can expect to save on upcoming power bills thanks to a rate cut passed by the state Legislature in June and upheld in court this week.
SCE&G lawyers say they will appeal the decision.
But there is still plenty of cause to celebrate. Relief appears imminent for hundreds of thousands of South Carolina residents who have paid 18 percent of their monthly power bills toward two nuclear reactors that will never generate power because SCE&G parent company SCANA and project partner Santee Cooper abandoned construction on the project a little over a year ago.
In fact, an even better deal might be on the way.
The opinion issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs says SCE&G will have to cut electric bills by 15 percent at least until the end of the year. That’s what lawmakers passed in June.
In total, the Legislature’s cut will cost SCE&G about $270 million. But Judge Childs’ opinion also leaves open the door for state regulators to cut the full 18 percent nuclear surcharge all the way back to the date the project was abandoned last year. That would cost the utility more than $670 million.
SCANA has already spent a lot of the money — ratepayers’ money — it made from the abandoned reactors, including millions of dollars in payments to shareholders. Now, some of that cash might have to get clawed back.
And looming investigations by state and federal officials could cut even deeper if they can prove that SCANA leaders knew early on that the reactor project was headed for disaster but misled investors, regulators and the public about its prospects.
In other words, things are looking up for electric customers who have weathered a whopping nine rate increases over the past decade related to the nuclear effort. And rightly so.
South Carolina lawmakers got us into this mess in 2007 with a law that allowed utilities to build massively expensive power plants and dump nearly all financial responsibility on the shoulders of ratepayers. They appear to have at least temporarily gotten us out of it.
Certainly, the fight to protect SCE&G customers is far from over. There are still countless loose ends to tie up, investigations to complete and regulatory decisions to make.
Santee Cooper customers also face the unwelcome prospect of higher electric bills to pay for the useless reactors if state officials can’t come up with a better way to help the state-owned utility to recoup its losses. Relief should be a priority.
But SCE&G customers should take heart that the next power bill might be a good bit cheaper than the last. And there could be much larger savings on the horizon.