The South Carolina House and Senate appear headed to a game of “chicken” on which chamber will blink first on nuclear-related power rates — with customers’ power bills and the very future of a major power utility at stake.
House members voted 104-7 on Wednesday to temporarily eliminate all of South Carolina Electric and Gas’s power rates which went to fund the ill-fated V.C. Summer nuclear expansion. The cut would slash 18 percent off customers’ power bills. But it has led to a showdown with the Senate, which favors a 13 percent cut its auditors believe would be necessary to help SCE&G avoid bankruptcy.
But Gov. Henry McMaster has vowed to veto anything short of the full 18 percent. And that left the House with a dilemma: approve their 18 percent and risk the Senate rejecting it, or go along with the Senate and risk a veto from McMaster.
They chose the former. “What we want to do is exhaust every single possible strand to protect the ratepayer,” House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said. “And that number needs to be at zero.”
But some members cautioned the House was playing a risky game with only weeks remaining in the session and risked not securing any breaks for SCE&G ratepayers. “We’re gambling, “State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said. “But we’re not gambling with our money. We’re gambling with other peoples’ money.”
Whatever the legislature decides, it will only be a temporary reduction until the state Public Service Commission (PSC) makes a final ruling later this year. The commission will determine if SCE&G can continue to collect partially or the full 18 percent as it seeks to repay $5 billion in debt from the project.
State Rep. Peter McCoy, R-James Island, said keeping even par of the rate intact would essentially exonerate SCE&G amid accusations from the legislature the utility mismanaged the project. “I’m not going to sit here and reward what I think… is nothing short of criminal activity,” he said.
House members also aired their frustrations with the upper chamber. The House has sent the Senate five bills designed to reform South Carolina laws and regulations in the aftermath of V.C. Summer. None have been taken up in the Senate, even at the committee level. Instead, the proposal considered on Wednesday is a temporary Senate resolution which initially only delayed a PSC vote. The House tacked on the rates when it came before them.
Complicating the issue is that Dominion Energy has threatened to call off its merger with SCE&G’s parent company SCANA if it is barred from continuing to collect the nuclear surcharge. The Virginia-based company has promised rebates to customers (averaging about $1,000 per customer who was with SCE&G for the entire construction process), but says that hinges on its ability to continue charging the higher nuclear-included rate for another 20 years.