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State-owned utility Santee Cooper is based in Moncks Corner. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

COLUMBIA — A major Florida power provider, NextEra Energy, is an early leader in bids to buy Santee Cooper with a "substantial offer" for the state-run utility, The Post and Courier has learned.

Two other Southeastern-based companies interested in purchasing the Moncks Corner utility, Duke Energy of Charlotte and Southern Co. of Atlanta, have submitted more informal bids, a source with knowledge of the negotiations said.​ A fourth utility, Dominion Energy of Richmond, Va., is expected to send a proposal within two weeks.

And a fifth unnamed company has shown serious interest in Santee Cooper, which Gov. Henry McMaster is trying to sell after accumulating $8 billion in debt — half of which comes from a canceled Fairfield County nuclear plant expansion.

Other utilities might be waiting to make more formal bids until state regulators iron out whether Cayce-based S.C. Electric & Gas, Santee Cooper's majority partner in the nuclear project, can continue charging its customers to cover costs of the partially built reactors. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12, though SCE&G officials will provide an update to state regulators next week.

Santee Cooper is not state regulated, but the utility's fate is tied, in part, to SCE&G because of the $9 billion they spent before pulling the plug on the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion. Southern Co.'s chief executive called buying a South Carolina utility "a bit of a long putt" on Wednesday because of the uncertainty from the nuclear fiasco.

Santee Cooper's suitors are among the largest utilities in the Southeast. Based on their value in the stock market, NextEra is the largest of the known four bidders. Duke, which has the most direct electric customers in South Carolina, is the second biggest.

NextEra’s primary subsidiary, Florida Power & Light, provides electricity across the east coast of the Sunshine State, but the company is one of the biggest power companies in the nation with power plants in New England and wind farms in the Midwest.

NextEra declined to comment Thursday beyond repeating an earlier statement that "we view South Carolina as an extremely attractive state in which to potentially invest hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Juno Beach, Fla.-based utility has tried recently to get bigger. NextEra tried to buy Hawaii’s largest electric provider three years ago, but its bid was swatted by regulators in Honolulu. Less than two weeks later, it made an offer to buy Texas’s biggest utility, Oncor, a deal that state regulators rejected in April.

All four Santee Cooper bidders have worked hard to pitch their interest to South Carolina decision makers. Company representatives have met with McMaster as well as the Statehouse's two most influential legislators, House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, sources say.

McMaster's office has said it hopes to send an offer for Santee Cooper to the Legislature when the session starts in January.

The General Assembly would need to approve a sale of the state-owned utility that provides power to about two million customers, mostly through the state's electric cooperatives. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about selling Santee Cooper since the utility is an economic-development tool under state control.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.