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Senators rail against fast-tracked gas plant proposal: ‘That still burns me!’


Senators rail against fast-tracked gas plant proposal: ‘That still burns me!’

Apr 16, 2024 | 8:25 pm ET
By Jessica Holdman
SC senators seek to slow down bill that fast-tracks new gas-fired power plant
GOP Sens. Chip Campsen, Majority Leader Shane Massey and Stephen Goldfinch chat in the Senate chamber during the first week of the 2024 session Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (File/Mary Ann Chastain/SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — Legislation meant to fast-track a new power plant proposed in South Carolina hit headwinds Tuesday, with Senate GOP leadership vowing to fight any measure that weakens utility regulations in the state.

“I have no interest at all in rolling back regulatory protections we put in place in 2018,” after the last utility debacle, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “That’s a ‘no deal’ for me.”

At the root of the proposal introduced by House Speaker Murrell Smith in February is permission for Dominion Energy and state-owned utility company Santee Cooper to partner on a possible 2,000-megawatt natural gas plant on the site of a former coal-fired power plant along the Edisto River in Colleton County.

But in the process, the legislation introduced sweeping regulatory changes that have drawn significant criticism from environmental and consumer groups.

A Senate committee made changes to the bill last week easing several concerns over consumers being represented in the regulatory process. It no longer calls for the shrinking of the state’s regulatory panel that oversees utilities. And it removed language directing utility watchdogs to consider the financial health of the power companies.

That was not enough to quell fears for some Senate Democrats and Republicans alike, including Massey, who felt they’re being rushed to make a decision.

“I don’t really question the need for more energy,” Massey said in starting a debate on a bill the Senate’s not taking up until later this month. “And I’m OK with gas.”

He can also probably “get there” on authorizing Santee Cooper and Dominion to work together, even though it was Dominion’s predecessor and Santee Cooper that ultimately bilked customers of billions for a failed project.

“I’ve seen that movie, y’all, and we have to be careful,” Massey said. “We’ve got to have a lot more oversight.”

Here’s how much SC power customers are still paying for a failed nuclear project

What irked the Edgefield Republican most is that while Dominion and Santee Cooper weigh the new plant, their customers are still paying for a pair of nuclear reactors that were never built.

They need to reopen a retired coal plant as a natural gas plant “because they didn’t finish V.C. Summer,” he said.

Dominion customers like him, he noted, are not only paying for the failed project but a 9.9% guaranteed profit that’s baked in for the utility.

Dominion Energy’s roughly 800,000 customers in South Carolina still have about 15 more years to pay off $2.3 billion from the failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion, which was abandoned in 2017 following mismanagement, cost overruns and fraud.

The boondoggle accounts for 5.6% of customers’ bills, according to documents from the state utilities watchdog.

“That still burns me that I’m still paying a profit for that fraudulently failed plant,” Massey said. “It burns me still, and I’m going to be paying it for the next 15 years.”

Santee Cooper’s share of the debt was $3.6 billion. Its 2 million customers — including those in Berkeley, Georgetown and Horry counties served directly and those served by power cooperatives that buy power from Santee Cooper’s plants — have at least eight more years of payments.

Unlike Dominion customers, customers of the state-owned utility don’t have to also pay a profit.

Still, “You’re going to have to pay those costs of a failed nuclear plant you were defrauded on,” Massey said.

“If they build Canadys (the gas plant), they’re going to want us to pay for the cost of that construction and profit on top of it. I’ve got a real problem with this,” he said.

“I don’t need them both. I’m not going to get them both, but I’ve got to pay for both,” he continued. “People in South Carolina need to understand that.

“What’s being asked here is, if you’re a Dominion customer, if you are a Santee Cooper direct customer or a co-op customer, you’re being asked to pay for not only the construction of, but profit on, two power plants, and you’ll get the use of one of them,” he said.

Massey ripped into the speed at which the bill moved through Senate committees, “with a push that we’ve got to get it done.

“They are not going to hold that over my head,” Massey said. “I’m not going to be held hostage.”

Supporters pointed out the issue of energy needs has been under study and debate since 2022. But with just a month left in the session, Massey is recommending the Legislature wait until the off-session this fall to fully vet the proposal.

Utility executives warned against waiting.

Building the gas plant, they said, would position South Carolina as the anchor on an interstate pipeline expansion being planned through Georgia.

“This project right now is in South Carolina’s lap,” Dominion Energy South Carolina President Keller Kissam told Senators during a committee hearing following discussion on the floor.

“It is an arms race about who moves fastest to get this,” Santee Cooper CEO Jimmy Staton added.