Given the past few tumultuous years for South Carolina’s electric utilities one lesson seems more pertinent now than ever: The more sunshine, the better.
Stricter oversight and public scrutiny could potentially have averted or at least minimized the fallout from the failed attempt to build two nuclear reactors, for example, which left hundreds of thousands of electricity customers on the hook for $9 billion.
But questionable decision-making by the state’s electricity providers need not involve such an eye-popping amount of money to make it well worth paying attention.
As The (Columbia) State newspaper reported last May, one Midlands electric co-op apparently held an unusually high number of board meetings, several of which lasted 15 minutes or less, and paid each board member a stipend of $450 per meeting.
Meanwhile, the same utility charged customers some of the highest electric rates in the state.
Once members of the co-op found out, change was swift and decisive. The co-op’s customers voted out the entire board.
But without easy access to crucial information, it’s difficult for the democratic processes that govern cooperatives to be effective.
A bill by Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, would address the lack of transparency for South Carolina’s 20 electric cooperatives, which collectively provide power to about 1.5 million residential and business customers, by giving the state Office of Regulatory Staff the authority to conduct periodic audits.
If needed, the state Public Service Commission could also get involved, although neither regulatory agency would have the direct authority to change rates or otherwise affect policy.
Other sensible reforms would require that meeting agendas and minutes be posted in a timely manner, extend the voting period for board elections, and make it more difficult to appoint relatives to empty board seats.
But the broader idea is that better access to information will help co-ops regulate themselves democratically in the way that they were originally intended to do so. It’s just that their structure and rules were established 80 years ago, and the realities of day-to-day life in South Carolina have changed dramatically since then.
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, a group that represents the state’s co-ops, is supportive of the bill and has pushed for ground rules to prevent abuse and to modernize the way that co-ops communicate with their customers.
Transparency will be particularly important as state lawmakers consider proposals to sell Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility from which co-ops buy much of their electricity.
The outcome of that effort could mark a major shift in the way South Carolina residents get their power. Billions of dollars are potentially at stake — in addition to the state’s broader economic prospects for decades to come — and the public will need to know what is on the table.
Whatever happens to Santee Cooper, however, the state’s electric co-ops owe their customers as much transparency as possible. And better oversight should help make sure that happens.