The S. C. Senate has voted to give priority status to two nuclear reform bills with just two days remaining in the two-year legislative session.
But after this year’s popular nuclear reform bills idled in the Senate, and after substantive nuclear bills idled in both chambers, it’s difficult to believe legislators are serious about protecting ratepayers.
Lawmakers have had four months to affect substantive change, not counting the months-long head start both chambers had in committee in 2017.
Only one nuclear reform bill has moved through both chambers into a House-Senate conference committee, where lawmakers are set to debate on Wednesday a rate relief proposal—between 13 and 18 percent—for South Carolina Electric and Gas customers. Currently, 18 percent of an SCE&G customer’s bill pays for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
Within weeks of announcements that SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA, and junior partner, state-owned Santee Cooper would abandon two $9 billion nuclear reactors in Fairfield County, two special Statehouse committees began holding hearings to discover what caused the failure.
By January, the full House had before it a basket of bills aimed at restructuring nuclear regulatory agencies, and at restoring ratepayer losses and preventing similar, future nuclear debacles. The House acted quickly, completing much of its nuclear reform work by early April.
House members are up for re-election in 2018.
Three of those bills never cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. One was aimed at restructuring Santee Cooper and requiring it to seek approval from the Public Service Commission before hiking rates.
The second would have restructured the PSC, which approved nine rate hikes on SCE&G’s customers to fund the Summer project.
The third would have disbanded the Public Utilities Review Committee, which oversees the PSC, replacing it with a similar committee. Senators Luke Rankin, R-Conway, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, are two of the three senators on the PURC. They are also on the Judiciary Committee.
A greater loss than these nips and tucks, however, is the Legislature’s missed opportunity to clear a path for competition in the energy market.
One Senate bill would have required utilities to purchase power from independent power producers if utilities could obtain the power cheaper through those producers. The bill was aimed at cost savings on behalf of utilities’ customers.
It was April before the bill received a hearing. It cleared the Judiciary Committee in early May with no promise of picking up speed before the end of the legislative year. A similar House bill died in committee.
The two bills receiving priority status are—
A bill to repeal the 2007 law that led to the nuclear debacle. The bill would be a prospective repeal, preventing future applications under the Base Load Review Act. That law made it easier for utilities to hike rates to fund projects, whether they reach completion or not. The bill also more clearly defines prudency and imprudency. SCANA has repeatedly said its actions were prudent under the BLRA.
The second bill would create a consumer advocate whose job is to advocate only for the customer. The Office of Regulatory Staff currently functions as an advocate, but its mission is thought to be conflicted. The ORS is concerned with financial stability of utilities, also.
Whether the conference committee settles on a 13 percent rate cut, or opts for the full Summer rate relief, and whether the remaining two bills ultimately become law, legislators will have accomplished the bare minimum in an election year.
Lawmakers may return to Columbia to take up limited legislation, including the budget and budget-related bills, after May 10.
But in the end, these minimal changes can hardly be called a great victory for customers.