The discussion over what to do with state-owned utility Santee Cooper has mostly centered on how best to help its hundreds of thousands of South Carolina electric customers avoid paying for decades for nuclear reactors that will never generate power.
State lawmakers must add to that discussion every South Carolina taxpayer and the many people who live near, vacation by or simply enjoy Lakes Moultrie and Marion.
Santee Cooper owns and maintains those lakes, which were created decades ago to harness the power of the water to generate electricity. If the utility is sold, as Gov. Henry McMaster and others have proposed, the lakes would be at risk.
If a private buyer decides it’s not worth the cost to continue to operate the hydroelectric plants, regulators could force dams to be removed, according to a recent report by Post and Courier reporter Seanna Adcox.
And maintaining the lakes isn’t cheap. Santee Cooper spends about $11 million per year on maintenance. Federal regulators are expected to eventually require a $180 million project be built to protect the lakes’ fish and eels.
If Santee Cooper is sold, those costs would likely fall to South Carolina taxpayers. It’s unthinkable that the state’s leadership would simply allow the lakes to be drained, assuming that could even be done safely and without causing environmental disaster.
Obviously, the lakes must be preserved.
But it has long been unclear that selling Santee Cooper would offer long-term benefits for the utility’s customers.
Unlike nonprofit Santee Cooper, a private utility would be allowed by state regulators to earn a return on investment — likely around 10 percent — which would increase customers’ electric bills. That means that savings from a sale would need to outweigh the profit-related rate hikes.
Lawmakers also need to ensure that the potential savings would be so significant that they could justify a hefty new annual expenditure for the state’s taxpayers.
Mr. McMaster is right that Lakes Marion and Moultrie are “worth their weight in gold,” as he said after a recent meeting of the legislative panel considering a Santee Cooper sale. They bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism annually and constitute the state’s largest untapped freshwater resources.
That far outweighs the value of the lakes’ hydroelectric capacity, and their potential expense to taxpayers. But it makes fiscal sense to keep the lakes generating electricity to help pay for their maintenance.
Without question, the best path for Santee Cooper’s future should minimize the burden on ratepayers to cover the billions in debt the utility incurred in its disastrous nuclear project partnership with SCANA.
But Santee Cooper is more than a collection of power plants. And the South Carolina lawmakers must keep that in mind when determining the utility’s fate.