South Carolina House special utility committee

A special House committee debated how to cut off $37 million in monthly payments to SCANA, the majority owner of two failed nuclear reactors in South Carolina. Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers want to halt the payments collected by SCANA to finance two nuclear reactors that were canceled at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in July. 

A special House committee voted Monday to draft legislation that would cut off $37 million a month that electric customers pay to SCANA, the parent company of South Carolina Electric & Gas. It also discussed amending a 2007 law that allows SCANA to charge its customers between $2 billion and $4 billion more for the failed nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.

Since 2009, more than $9 billion was spent on the unfinished reactors by SCANA and its partner, state-run Santee Cooper. Another $1.7 billion was collected by SCANA to cover the cost of financing that nuclear construction in Fairfield County.  

Any decision by lawmakers to strip money from the Cayce-based company would temporarily put the Legislature in charge of regulating one of South Carolina's largest utilities. Usually, the state's seven-member Public Service Commission is responsible for deciding how much electric customers are charged. Legislative attorneys told lawmakers they can make those decisions themselves. 

State Rep. Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who chairs the special House committee, said he expects SCANA to take lawmakers to court if they vote to reduce customers' monthly bills.

"I can't tell you what SCANA's attorneys will do. But I can tell you what I think they will do," McCoy said. "They will file a lawsuit."   

The House wrapped a series of hearings on the aborted nuclear project Monday with recommendations for legislation when the next Statehouse session starts in January. The Senate also has a special nuclear project panel.

The average SCE&G customer currently pays $27 per month to cover SCANA's financing costs and a 10 percent profit for the company's investors. McCoy and other lawmakers on the House committee said customers shouldn't pay for two reactors that may never produce a single kilowatt of electricity. 

"The math, on its face, is appalling," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia. 

Finlay, who sponsored a bill last year to change the state's utility laws, said he talked to business owners that are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars every month for the abandoned nuclear reactors.  

"There is no mathematical, moral or logical way that that is fair to the ratepayer," Finlay said. 

In the past three months, documents and testimony revealed that SCANA and Santee Cooper knew about serious construction problems at V.C. Summer years before the project was cancelled. A 2016 audit by Bechtel, one of the country's largest construction and engineering firms, highlighted problems with SCANA's oversight of the decade-long project.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said legislative hearings showed the reactor construction was "mismanaged." Ott faulted SCANA for trying to conceal the critical 2016 audit, which was withheld from the state's utility watchdog agency.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said higher electric bills in South Carolina harmed the state's businesses and millions of South Carolinians. 

"This is an important moment for our state," said Smith, who is running for governor in 2018. "They have hurt our ability to compete and they have hurt our economy." 

The lawmakers also discussed repealing the 2007 state law — the Base Load Review Act — that jump-started the nuclear expansion project and allowed SCANA to charge customers for the reactors before they were finished. Ott, who has helped lead the special committee, said the problems with that law were the responsibility of legislators. 

If the 2007 law is changed, it could stop SCANA from charging for more than $4 billion it has yet to collect from customers. That money was spent on steel, labor and concrete at V.C. Summer. SCANA's attorneys told state utility regulators the company wouldn't be able to provide power to its roughly 700,000 customers if the monthly bills are cut. 

Rep. Mike Forester, R-Spartanburg, asked Monday whether the Legislature's decisions would push SCANA into bankruptcy and questioned whether there was a way to prevent that. 

Other lawmakers said it isn't their intention to put SCANA out of business. But if the utility goes bankrupt, the company's executives are responsible, Ott said. 

"What we're are doing right now is responding to a crisis," Ott said. "What I am trying to do is stand up for my constituents and ratepayers throughout the state."

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.