COLUMBIA, S.C. — The $27 average monthly charge that customers of a private utility pay for two abandoned South Carolina nuclear plants would be suspended, under legislation approved Wednesday by the state House of Representatives.
Lawmakers took the action only after the House speaker took the floor for a rare speech and said he wanted to show that members support ratepayers over businesses.
House members gave Speaker Jay Lucas a standing ovation Wednesday, then shouted “aye” to pass the amendment suspending the charge. It was attached to a bill that passed an hour later changing the law that allowed South Carolina Electric & Gas to charge for the plants before they were built.
Lucas said the bill was needed because a utility should never be rewarded for fraud, concealment, omission, misrepresentation or non-disclosure.
The Republican from Hartsville said he couldn’t restart construction on the reactors or force utilities to make better decisions. “What I can impact is rates that I think are being unfairly paid by the citizens of this state,” he said.
The proposal is a compromise. House members originally wanted to permanently eliminate the charge. But Lucas, who worried that might not pass a court challenge, instead proposed eliminating the charge at least until regulators and courts hear SCE&G’s challenge that it still deserves the money. The speaker said he still expects lawsuits.
Lucas said nearly 20 percent of SCE&G customers’ bills pays for the abandoned nuclear plants. The utility and state-owned minority partner Santee Cooper spent nearly a decade and close to $9 billion trying to build them before giving up last July amid rapidly rising costs.
The speaker promised he would help Santee Cooper customers too.
Under a state law that was enacted just before construction started, the utilities were allowed to charge before a single watt of power was generated.
The bill to repeal that law passed 119-1 on Wednesday. It includes Lucas’ amendment.
It faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Senators have mostly waited to see what the House does before taking action. Gov. Henry McMaster said last week he will sign a bill that removes the charge from ratepayers.
The proposal casts doubt on a proposed takeover of SCE&G by Virginia-based Dominion Energy, which offered a cash refund of $1,000 per household and about a $7-a-month rate cut, but only if it could keep charging for the abandoned nuclear plants for 20 years.
Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said the company is reviewing the bill, but stands by earlier statements that any change in law that significantly changes SCE&G’s financial situation could lead Dominion to walk away from a possible merger.
“While our review is continuing, it is clear that if the legislation became law it would put a standalone SCE&G in a precarious financial position,” Wade wrote in an email.
House members said that they can’t worry about what Dominion might do.
“Our focus has been ratepayer, ratepayer, ratepayer. Not shareholder, shareholder, shareholder,” said Rep. Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who ran a committee that proposed bills to deal with the abandoned nuclear plants.