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

COLUMBIA — Santee Cooper — the state-run power provider deep in debt after abandoning a $9 billion nuclear reactor project — has a South Carolina-based suitor.

Pacolet Milliken of Greenville, a spinoff of Upstate-based textile and chemical giant Milliken & Company, is considering purchasing the Moncks Corner utility, William Crawford, Pacolet Milliken's senior vice president and general counsel, told The Post and Courier on Monday.

Pacolet Milliken was approached by Twenty First Century Utilities, a Washington, D.C.-based power firm started two years ago with industry veterans, about teaming up and looking into Santee Cooper, Crawford said.

"Pacolet Milliken and the Milliken family care deeply about South Carolina," Crawford said. "We want to be helpful."

Their interest is preliminary, Crawford said. The privately-held companies have not even looked into Santee Cooper's financial data that Gov. Henry McMaster is making available to potential buyers.

Pacolet Milliken owns Lockhart Power, an electric utility based in Union County, as well as NiAmerica, a water and sewer provider headquartered outside Columbia. The Pacolet Milliken board includes Bill Timmerman, who was chief executive of SCANA when the Cayce-based utility and Santee Cooper began the nuclear project. Timmerman retired in 2011. 

Efforts to reach Twenty First Century, which sought to buy Hawaii's largest electric utility earlier this year, were unsuccessful Monday.

Pacolet Milliken and Twenty First Century join four publicly traded Southern utilities — Dominion Energy of Virginia, Duke Energy of North Carolina, NextEra Energy of Florida and Southern Co. of Georgia — that are interested in Santee Cooper. A subsidiary of Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway pulled out of consideration Monday, sources told The Post and Courier.

McMaster has been trying to sell Santee Cooper since soon after the utility and SCANA abruptly ended a decade of work this summer on adding two reactors to the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station north of Columbia.

Santee Cooper is carrying about $8 billion in debt, roughly half of which comes from the aborted nuclear project. The utility provides power to nearly two million South Carolina customers both directly and through sales to 20 electric cooperatives.

Lawmakers, who must approve any sale, are split over getting rid of the utility. Some legislators question why the state remains in the power business since Santee Cooper opened in the wake of the Great Depression, while others fear that a new owner might slash staff or raise electric rates while moving the headquarters out of state.

Pacolet Milliken's interest provides hope that Santee Cooper could keep its South Carolina roots.

"There's some value in that," state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said.

But the value of Santee Cooper, a critical step in any possible sale, remains unknown. The governor's office along with top lawmakers each plan to have consultants put a price tag on the 83-year-old utility.

No one has put a deadline on a sale, though McMaster is expected to share details from possible buyers when the next legislative session starts Jan. 9. 

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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.