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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 — Two utilities, Florida's NextEra Energy and Greenville's Pacolet Milliken, are willing to offer roughly $10 billion each to buy state-run Santee Cooper's electric business, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told The Post and Courier Thursday.

A third utility that the source declined to identify made an offer to manage Santee Cooper and work toward buying the Moncks Corner-based power provider. 

The offers cover Santee Cooper's electric generation, transmission and distribution businesses that serve nearly two million South Carolina customers, mostly through power sales to 20 electric cooperatives around South Carolina.

The state expects to keep Santee Cooper's two lakes, Marion and Moultrie, along with the Old Santee Canal Park and Wampee Conference Center and make them part of the state park system, the source said.

Sales offers could include freezing power rates for customers, but those details have not been worked out, the source said.

Any sale approved by the General Assembly would eliminate Santee Cooper's $8 billion in debt or risk a veto from Gov. Henry McMaster. McMaster started looking for buyers for Santee Cooper soon after the utility and South Carolina Electric & Gas pulled the plug on a decade-long nuclear construction project in Fairfield County. Half of Santee Cooper's debt comes from the abandoned $9 billion reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.

Talk about selling Santee Cooper has heated up since SCE&G's parent company, SCANA Corp., received a $14.6 billion buyout offer from Virginia's Dominion Energy in January.

NextEra, itching to move into South Carolina, has been seen as a favorite to buy Santee Cooper. Leaders from the Florida company have kept in constant contact with McMaster and Statehouse leaders and hired eight lobbyists, including a pair of former top lawmakers.

Sen. Larry Grooms, a Bonneau Republican whose district include Santee Cooper's headquarters, said NextEra officials pitched some lawmakers this week on a sale with a sticker price of more than $15 billion, some of which comes from future projects over the next 30 years including a new natural gas power plant. 

But the actual sales price was slightly under $8 billion, just less than the state power provider's debt load, Grooms said. The state essentially would be giving away Santee Cooper's assets, including its power plants and transmission lines, to the Florida utility, he said. NextEra also floated having lawmakers exempt the company from property and income taxes. Instead, they would pay a fee at much lower rates than taxes.

"This is a trial balloon," Grooms said.

NextEra declined comment.

Pacolet Milliken, a spinoff of Upstate-based textile and chemical giant Milliken & Company, is teaming up on a Santee Cooper bid with Twenty First Century Utilities, a Washington, D.C.-based power firm started two years ago with industry veterans. Pacolet did not return calls immediately Thursday.

Potential buyers are facing competition from the cooperatives themselves. Some or all of the smaller utilities could make offers for Santee Cooper.

Michael Couick, chief executive of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said he has met with a number of Santee Cooper suitors and suggested they not share details of their sales pitches.

"It's not appropriate since the cooperatives might make an offer," he said. 

Cooperatives are willing to listen to deals where they could partner with an outside utility, Couick added.

Santee Cooper has no knowledge on details about potential sale offers, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said Thursday.

"Santee Cooper hasn’t been involved in any of these discussions," Gore said.

Thad Moore and Andrew Brown contributed to this report.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

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.