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Former U.S. representative forms energy coalition

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Former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett wants to see South Carolina’s state government out of the energy business.

While introducing the Palmetto Energy Coalition Tuesday at the Statehouse, Barrett emphasized that the group’s main purpose is to be the voice of the ratepayer in the energy debate.

“As the House and Senate committees prepare to discuss the best way forward out of this energy mess, it’s important to remember how we got here, and how we can never let this happen again,” said Barrett, who represented S.C.’s 3rd Congressional District from 2003-2010.

Former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett talks about the Palmetto Energy Coalition on Tuesday at the Statehouse. (Photo/Travis Boland)In a poll taken by the coalition, 93% of registered voters in the state said they were concerned taxpayers are being stuck with the debt from the abandonment of the V.C. Summer project.

Among the fallout from the failed project is the uncertainty surrounding state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which owns 45% of the twin 1,117 nuclear reactors that were being built near Jenkinsville. S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has been actively shopping the utility, saddled with millions of dollars in debt stemming from the project, and has received letters of interest from four unnamed, out-of-state companies.

The governor originally approached Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Energy, Atlanta-based Southern Co. and Charlotte-based Duke Energy.

Barrett said the coalition is on board with the sale of Santee Cooper to a utility with a record of service.

“This company could potentially absorb Santee Cooper’s V.C. Summer debt while bringing low rates, reliable service, oversight and a diversified energy portfolio to help meet S.C.’s energy needs now and in the future with no burden to the tax payer,” Barrett said.

Barrett said nuclear power could still be a viable option in the future, but the coalition will advocate for a mixture of possible energy sources.

SCANA subsidiary S.C. Electric and Gas owns the remaining 55% of the V.C. Summer project. The two utilities sank a combined $9 billion into the reactors before rising costs and frequent delays led contractor Westinghouse to file for bankruptcy protection in April. Soon after, both utilities pulled out of the project, leaving ratepayers financing the abandoned reactors.

Also Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee took up the six-bill Utility Ratepayer Protection package pre-filed by Speaker Jay Lucas earlier this month. The House Judiciary Constitutional Laws subcommittee vetted and approved the bills, which would restructure the Public Service Commission and Santee Cooper while shifting the responsibility for paying for the abandoned nuclear reactors from ratepayers to SCANA, last week.

Debate of the bills is the final step in the committee process. The package will be considered by the full House when the legislative session convenes in January.

Bill H.4375 requires SCANA to pay debt obligations and shutdown costs associated with V.C. Summer while abolishing the 18% of SCE&G customers’ bills that currently goes toward project costs. Other bills in the package end the terms of current Santee Cooper and PSC board members and create new qualification standards for their replacements.

Santee Cooper would also be required to obtain PSC approval for rate increases and would not be allowed to add V.C. Summer recoupment costs to new rates. The proposed legislation would also create a utilities consumer advocate that, along with the Office of Regulatory Staff, would have subpoena power.

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said the advocate, to be based in the Attorney General’s office, would provide greater oversight in the “cruise-control, rubber-stamp” process that allowed the V.C. Summer project to move forward for 10 years.

“That advocate would have access to the ins and outs and the dealings that are going with ORS,” McCoy said.

Housing the advocate in the Attorney’s General office prompted debate, with concern voiced that the position would not be independent. McCoy defended the idea by saying the Attorney General is accountable to S.C. voters.

The Senate V.C. Summer Nuclear Project Review Committee also met Tuesday to discuss how to prevent a V.C. Summer-sized failure in the future, including restructuring qualifications for PSC commissioners. The committee passed a preliminary proposal to reduce the number of commissioners from seven to five. Currently, each member of the PSC comes from one of the state’s seven U.S. Congressional districts.

Last week, SCE&G proposed a solution to rate increases stemming from the V.C. Summer mess. Its plan would provide approximately $4.8 billion in rate relief to residential and industrial customers, including a rollback of rates to March 2015 levels.

SCANA said such a move would reduce annual rates by approximately $90 million, or 3.5%. The plan would also have SCANA shareholders absorb the net nuclear construction costs through lower earnings over the next 50 years. In addition, shareholders would bear the $180 million cost of the acquisition of a 540-megawatt, natural-gas-fired power plant in Gaston that is projected to replace more than 40% of the power that was to be provided to the company by the nuclear reactors.

The proposal was greeted with criticism from state officials including McMaster, who said it did not stop charging ratepayers for the failed project or give them their money back. Lucas said the proposal showed SCANA is still prioritizing profits over customers and vowed to press ahead with the ratepayer protection package.

Reach Travis Boland at 803-726-7543.

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