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Santee Cooper's headquarters in Moncks Corner. Gov. Henry McMaster wants to sell the state-run utility. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

COLUMBIA — A possible sale of state-owned power utility Santee Cooper will move forward slowly through the Legislature this year.

Because the sale is so complicated, lawmakers leading the review — Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, and Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter — said Wednesday that they expect to take the year to fully examine offers made by interested buyers before taking a top offer to the General Assembly in 2020.

Selling the state's only utility requires approval from the Legislature.

"It's not an an easy transition, there's going to be a lot more work ahead of us," Smith said after reviewing the first offers for Santee Cooper. "The next steps are big."

Campbell added, "We still have got a lot of unknowns." 

In a consultant's report released Friday, 10 companies submitted seven purchase bids and eight other offers that included management or partial acquisitions. The names of the bidders were not revealed.

The Post and Courier verified that Pacolet Milliken, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina and Duke Energy of North Carolina submitted offers. Other reported suitors include NextEra Energy of Florida and Dominion Energy of Virginia, the new owner of S.C. Electric & Gas parent, SCANA.

Santee Cooper and SCANA were partners in the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion that failed in 2017 after lengthy construction delays and hefty cost overruns. The cooperatives are Santee Cooper's biggest customers.  

The four Santee Cooper purchase offers that met all the criteria ranged from $7.9 billion to $9.2 billion, Judah Rose, executive director for ICF, the Virginia-based technology consultant hired to evaluate offers, told the sale panel Wednesday.

The offers would have been higher if not for Santee Cooper's $8 billion in debt, he said.  

One of the four offers reviewed by consultants did not provide as definitive answers as others, dropping its score used by consultants to evaluate the bids. That offer received a score of 46, while the other bids ranged from 56 to 70. The highest-scoring bid had the lowest rates, Rose said.

Estimated customer rates are expected to fall by as much as 14 percent because most of the potential buyers would absorb Santee Cooper's debt, half of which came from borrowing to build the unfinished nuclear reactors.

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Some bids looked at ending coal power generation for natural gas, which should help save money for customers. But the offer that lowers rates most would buy power from out of state, Rose said.

Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper's Moncks Corner headquarters, expressed concern that potential new owners could not come through with rate savings for customers because of unpredictable transmission costs.

Grooms also questioned how new owners could lower customer rates when costs will rise from private buyers needing to pay taxes on what's now tax-free public debt. Rose said most would-be buyers would write off the $4 billion nuclear debt and pass savings to ratepayers.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pushed hard for Santee Cooper's sale and sits on the review panel, countered Grooms by asking Rose that if nothing changes whether Santee Cooper rates will raise.

Rose responded they would.  

"That is about the most certain thing you can tell us," McMaster said. 

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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.