Even if South Carolina gets a great offer and the Legislature agrees to sell Santee Cooper, that transaction won’t be completed anytime soon. Senators who oppose a sale at any cost will delay as long as they can, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see lawsuits drag things out even longer. That makes it essential for the state-owned utility to operate as efficiently and responsibly as possible in the meantime.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that this has happened any more since Santee Cooper and SCE&G pulled the plug on the over-budget, overdue V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project two years ago than it did before.
After CEO Lonnie Carter retired on a pension package unimaginable to state employees who weren’t part of his inner circle, the Santee Cooper board replaced Mr. Carter with a recently retired general counsel, and then kept him in place for nearly two years rather than further shaking up the management team that had concealed the growing problems from government officials and the public.
So we welcome the board’s expected vote today to break from its decades-long tradition and hire an experienced utility executive without any ties to Santee Cooper to run the utility.
Mark Bonsall retired in May as general manager and CEO of Arizona’s Salt River Project, a state-owned power and water utility that has three times the staff and provides electricity to five times as many customers as Santee Cooper.
All other things being equal, it’s generally good to hire someone with experience inside an organization. Likewise, we’d rather hire a South Carolinian to a state government position. But things aren’t equal here. If there’s any state agency that needs outside eyes, and someone not steeped in South Carolina’s peculiar political culture, it’s Santee Cooper. Like SCE&G, the insular utility refused to inform state regulators about the increasingly insurmountable problems at V.C. Summer so corrective action could have been taken or the project halted earlier. Unlike SCE&G, which is now owned by Virginia-based Dominion, Santee Cooper had a clear obligation, as an agency of the state, to blow the whistle and protect ratepayers from the higher power bills that resulted from the failure.
We don’t know whether selling Santee Cooper is a good idea in the wake of this stupendous fiasco. And neither does anyone else — although that doesn’t stop far too many legislators and others from having already made up their minds — because we don’t have enough information to know. The Legislature absolutely should sell Santee Cooper if that will result in better rates and a better energy mix, not just for the next year or decade but for decades to come. If it can’t nail that down, it shouldn’t sell.
If Santee Cooper remains state-owned, the Legislature must change the way it operates, at the least by giving the governor the authority to remove board members (they are selected by the governor) if he’s convinced they aren’t doing a good job. Actually, that’s the first thing the Legislature should have done after the V.C. Summer debacle, but the delay doesn’t diminish the necessity.
Santee Cooper Board Chairman Dan Ray told The (Columbia) State newspaper that Mr. Bonsall requested a relatively short, 18-month contract because he “felt like he could accomplish all the goals we’ve discussed related to reforming the organization” in 18 months.
That’s encouraging as well. We just hope the goals the board discussed with Mr. Ray include no longer supporting or taking on more unnecessary expenses, as well as moving to a cleaner energy mix. Both changes are needed now as the utility attempts to shield customers from the costs of nuclear plants that will never produce a watt of electricity. They also should be essential as state officials decide the utility’s future.