*Corrected 5:36 p.m.
Officials mulling the sale of state-owned Santee Cooper want the utility to hold off on making any abrupt financial moves to retire roughly $4.3 billion in debt tied to two Jenkinsville nuclear reactors the utility abandoned in July.
A special Senate committee to investigate what led to the project’s failure interviewed outgoing CEO Lonnie Carter on Wednesday.
Carter told the committee the utility could use more than $250 million in unspent, borrowed money and nearly $900 million from the Toshiba settlement to pay down the debt.
Legislators would rather the utility, whose board meets on Friday, pause any large-scale financial decisions that would make the prospective sale of the utility more difficult.
Considering whether to sell Santee Cooper, which owns a 45 percent stake in the project, is one solution legislators are considering. Gov. Henry McMaster has called for the utility’s sale since the summer. Recent calls by House and Senate leadership have asked McMaster to be deliberate.
“Every action you take from here on is going to affect that in some way or other, and in most cases make it more difficult to sell, if that was the determination,” committee co-chair, Sen. Nikki Setzler said to Carter.
“Why would you not, knowing what the situation is now, kind of stand still?” asked the West Columbia Democrat.
Carter said there’s no plan to add additional debt in the near future, but any financial decisions would be consistent with meeting regulatory requirements and other obligations.
One option Santee Cooper may consider is to pass along a portion of the settlement to large customers like electric wholesalers, who pay the utility’s costs.
“All of the money that Santee Cooper receives will flow to the customer eventually,” said Carter.
Sen. Shane Massey, who co-chairs the committee, said putting the money into operating expenses, as opposed to paying down debt, would make it difficult for lawmakers to consider the sale of Santee Cooper.
“If you’re putting the money into operating, and there’s no guarantee that the people who have paid the money to start with are going to get a refund, that’s even more troubling to me,” said the Edgefield Republican.
By the numbers
- Majority partner, South Carolina Electric and gas has hiked rates nine times since 2009 to help fund the interest on financing the project.
- Santee Cooper has hiked rates five times since 2009.
- The increase represents 15.7% of customers’ bills. Of that amount, 4.5% pays for the nuclear project.
- Customers have paid $2.2 billion in rate hikes to fund the project. Unless anyone can prove the spending was imprudent, customers may not recoup losses.
- The partners have spent $9 billion on the project.
- 2007—the year the General Assembly approved a law to make it easier for utilities to hike rates to fund projects, whether they reach completion or not.
*An earlier version of this story stated Santee Cooper has roughly $4.3 million in debt tied to two nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville. The correct figure is $4.3 billion.