My, how time flies. It seems like only yesterday that we were paying billions of dollars for a couple of abandoned nuclear reactors that would never be finished. Oh, wait. That was yesterday. And today. And tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow.
It’s been two years since SCE&G and Santee Cooper pulled the plug on the overdue, overbudget construction project at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, and we just can’t seem to get those utilities out of our minds. Or our pocketbooks. Or our headlines.
We were reminded of this on the eve of Wednesday’s two-year anniversary of our never-ending drama, when we learned that 1. former SCE&G customers are about to receive tiny refund checks as a result of the class-action lawsuit that served mainly to provide hefty paychecks to a handful of attorneys and 2. the state apparently has decided to go super-secretive about the biggest sale of S.C.-owned property since ... forever.
And all that happened just a couple of weeks after Santee Cooper agreed to pay more than $1 million to hire a new CEO and another half a million dollars for his top assistant, in a clear effort to stave off that biggest-ever sale of S.C. public property.
Those of you who read your junk mail more closely than I do will probably get credits on your next power bill from Dominion Energy, which purchased SCE&G under the terms of a law that already required it to slash our electricity rates before it reached a lawsuit settlement that required it to do what the law already required it to do. That settlement also required Dominion to pay a bunch of money to the lawyers and the leavings to customers — hence, the refund checks — and prevented the trial that could have eliminated the profit Dominion is making off of SCE&G’s losses.
That last part is essential, because it’s a reminder that one big way regulated power companies make money is by borrowing money to build new power plants and then collecting a state-authorized profit from customers on their debt payments. Seriously.
We received notices about the settlement earlier this year, but I threw mine in the trash. Oops. We had to respond in order to get our refunds — I expect mine will be of the “less than $20” variety — as a power bill-credit rather than a less-than-convenient check.
Meantime, the state Department of Administration selected three consulting companies to help evaluate bids for the sale of Santee Cooper. And when The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown asked for copies of the contracts, the agency said it would comply with the terms of the state’s Freedom of Information Act — which lets it wait at least 30 days. I’ll write more about this in an upcoming editorial. For now, just consider what that suggests about how this process will to be conducted.
But all might not be bad on the Santee Cooper front. Mark Bonsall, the utility’s new million-dollar man, met with our staff recently, and I found a lot to like about the retired CEO of the Salt River Project, a state-owned utility in Arizona. Yes, he might just be good at talk, but I think it’s worth considering a few things he had to say:
Santee Cooper's expected decision to hire Mark Bonsall on Tuesday as CEO should provide an overdue outside perspective nearly two years after the state-owned utility and SCE&G abandoned the VC Summer nuclear construction project.
1. One way he hopes to design a restructuring proposal that the Legislature will find more attractive than any of the bids to purchase or take over Santee Cooper management is by cutting costs enough to start paying down the $4 billion nuclear debt, because “the better we do that, the less attractive it is for other companies to buy.”
2. He has suspended the bloated “executive leadership team,” which suggests that he really might provide the fresh eyes the utility needs.
3. He supports some state oversight. He’s no fan of letting the Public Service Commission set rates, but he notes that “there are other kinds of things you can do that sort of get to that.” The Legislature could require customer input before raising rates or require state approval to borrow money or start new construction projects. It could turn into law a policy his board adopted at Salt River, which capped power-rate increases at the rate of inflation.
Mr. Bonsall hopes to release an operating plan in September. With any luck, we won’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about the nuclear fiasco until then.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.