CAYCE — South Carolina Electric & Gas pitched a plan Thursday to shrink the price tag for two failed nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station by about 40 percent, or $2 billion, but will still charge its customers for the useless power plants over the next 50 years.
Under a partial rollback plan, customers' electric bills would drop by 3.5 percent — or roughly $5 each month.
But that leaves nearly 15 percent of the average SCE&G bill going towards paying off the Westinghouse-designed reactors that were cancelled in July. The average SCE&G customer would still pay $25 per month for the troubled nuclear project as the utility collects a total of $29.5 million per month.
SCE&G said bills could drop even more if the utility gets a roughly $2 billion tax write-off from federal government for the unfinished power plants.
The Cayce-based utility is trying to avoid eating its entire share of the $9 billion failed reactors, which is being pushed by S.C. lawmakers who want customers to get full refunds. Executives from SCE&G's parent company, SCANA, said having to foot the bill could make the former Fortune 500 company financially unstable.
Keller Kissam, SCE&G's new president, told reporters that he hopes the proposal will satisfy South Carolina lawmakers, utility regulators and the company's 700,000 customers who have voiced outrage since the $9 billion nuclear project near Jenkinsville was cancelled in July.
"This is a best effort on our part to bring resolution to this, and to provide a solution that is in the best interest of our customers," said Kissam, who has been pushed forward as a new face for the troubled utility.
"Our customers deserve this solution, and this is a forward-looking solution," Kissam added.
As part of the proposal, the utility's investors would also cover a $180 million acquisition of an existing gas-fired power plant in South Carolina.
Any changes will require approval from state utility regulators.
But many South Carolina lawmakers said the proposal did not go far enough. After SCANA unveiled its plan Thursday, the S.C. House announced a hearing next week to push forward a package of legislation that would halt nuclear related payments to SCANA altogether and force the company to reimburse customers more than $1.7 billion collected since 2009 under a state law.
“Today’s proposal provides further proof that SCANA has consistently prioritized the company’s profits over protecting its consumers," said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, who has guided a special committee since the project's collapse. "We will continue to move our utility ratepayer protection package through the legislative process to ensure South Carolina consumers receive the protections they deserve.”
More criticism came from the Statehouse. Gov. Henry McMaster's office called the proposal "completely unacceptable." Senate President Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, called it "an insult to ratepayers." Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, called the proposal a "slap in the face."
"Where is the justice in it?" asked Finlay, who has been one of SCANA's most outspoken critics in recent months.
"By having this press conference, they have created a whole new world of bad blood," Finlay added. "I don't think it received anywhere near the reception they hoped for. I don't think there is anyone in the General Assembly that is impressed by this plan."
Other lawmakers said they appreciated SCANA finally admitting some fault, but the plan didn't change their point of view.
"I am still of the opinion that ratepayers should not continue to pay for this project," said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. "It's as simple as that."
"SCE&G has to justify why customers should pay anything for those nuclear plants," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
SCE&G's proposal gave SCANA's stock price a brief bump Thursday morning before the political reaction dropped shares back toward the previous day's close. SCANA shares have dropped by 25 percent since the nuclear project was abandoned this summer.
Other groups that have challenged SCANA's nuclear project before the South Carolina Public Service Commission also criticized the utility's rate proposals.
Friends of Earth called it "a raw deal for ratepayers." The Southern Environmental Law Center called it a "self-serving solution."
“This is their opening offer. It’s nowhere near what our goal is," said Frank Knapp, the president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
Standing in one of SCE&G's warehouses near Columbia, Kissam said the utility's lobbyists would discuss the proposal with lawmakers in the coming weeks and try to smooth out any problems state leaders might have with the plan.
"We're going to carry it before those folks and we're going to talk to them and get their feedback," Kissam said.
"The utility ratepayer protection committees that have been in the House and the Senate, we've listened to those," said Kissam, who opened the press conference with a long apology.
But it remains unclear whether SCANA and SCE&G have the political pull they once had and industry analysts are watching closely how lawmakers react to the Cayce-based utility. State legislators became increasingly frustrated in past months as the utility's executives have side-stepped any responsibility for the project's failure and refused to disclose a 2016 audit that faulted SCANA's oversight at V.C. Summer.
Kevin Marsh is leaving as SCANA's CEO at the end of the year as part of the fallout, but critics noted that his successor was a company insider, chief financial officer Jimmy Addison.
Kissam suggested that customers and lawmakers might be willing to cut this deal with SCANA in order to prevent the company from going out of business or being acquired by a larger investor-owned utility based outside South Carolina.
"Customers are angry. Some customers think we don't deserve to survive this," Kissam said. "But a majority of them say that they believe it is in the best interest of them and South Carolina to have a utility that's not just serving South Carolina, but to have a utility that is headquartered in South Carolina and committed to South Carolina."