South Carolina House OKs bill they say will keep the lights on. Others worry oversight will be lost

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A wide-ranging bill backers say will ensure South Carolina has plenty of electric power passed a key vote Wednesday in the House, but opponents complained it would roll back billions of dollars in lessons learned after a proposed nuclear plant never generated a watt of power.

The 88-21 vote was almost all along party lines. The bill faces one more routine vote before heading to the Senate. That chamber’s leadership supports the idea of assuring future energy flows but is much more skeptical of removing oversight seven years after ratepayers lost billions when a pair of utilities were paid to build two nuclear reactors before they ever started working.

The short term goal for supporters of the bill is to make sure private Dominion Energy and state-owned utility Santee Cooper can build a natural-gas fired power plant in the Lowcountry. It allows faster approval of gas pipelines needed for the project.

Those efforts got more urgent after an unusual cold snap on Christmas Eve in 2022 nearly tapped out the power grid and could have led to rolling blackouts.

“The truth is the enviros lost,” said Republican Rep. Jay West, who has led the bill through the House. “And they are trying to hold our energy security hostage.”

The long term goal is to make sure a state that grew by more than 30% in the past two decades — adding more than 1.4 million people — can keep the lights on in houses and big manufacturers and data farms humming without having to buy power from out of state or depending too much on solar or other greener energy solutions that backers of the bill said are currently unreliable.

Environmental groups said the bill points South Carolina toward energy production for decades through items like natural gas that may soon be surpassed by technological advances. They said it also relies on smaller nuclear plants that are not feasible now.

The Southern Environmental Law Center called it a wish list for the utility industry.

That thought causes some to pause. Nearly 20 years ago, South Carolina overhauled the way regulators look at utilities, allowing them recover costs of building two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer plant near Columbia before the work was done.

When construction fell behind, executives of South Carolina Electric & Gas — later bought by Dominion as it faced possible bankruptcy — lied about the progress to keep the money coming. Several were convicted of crimes after the project failed in 2017.

The Senate will carefully consider the bill, especially since it involves both Dominion and Santee Cooper. The bill has to pass that chamber before the session ends in six weeks to have a chance to become law.

“It deserves extra scrutiny. They both deserve that,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said.

The only major sticking point in the House debate Wednesday was part of the bill which reduces the number of regulators on the Public Service Commission from seven to three.

West said reducing the number of commissioners means they can choose the most qualified from a statewide pool and pay them more.

Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said reducing the number of commissioners and abandoning choosing who served by congressional districts for geographic diversity means lawmakers and citizens will have less power over the board.

“Just put one person in charge and they can tell us all what we are going to pay for electric rates,” Rutherford said.

The bill also would allow utilities to directly appeal denials of their proposals before regulators to the state Supreme Court and give their testimony more weight than others in disputes before the commission.

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