Senate opposition leaves South Carolina energy bill with listless future


COLUMBIA (AP) — Before a bill that supporters said will help South Carolina keep the lights on as the state rapidly grows could get debated on the Senate floor, several senators spoke out against the proposal.
The lawmakers, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said it's being rushed and could roll back expensive lessons learned by a failed nuclear reactors.
Massey said the 80-plus page bill introduced on Feb. 15 has too many changes to regulations. In remarks before the bill is even considered, he suggested punting it to next year and spending the rest of 2024 with comprehensive hearings to determine the scope the state's power needs and exactly how the regulatory system is preventing utilities from getting the help they need to produce more electricity.
"I'm not going to be held hostage by people saying if you don't give us exactly what we want when we want it we're going to turn the lights out on you," Massey said.
Supporters of the bill point to Christmas Eve 2022 when cold weather combined with some problems at generating stations led to demand that nearly topped the ability to generate electricity in South Carolina.
Utility officials said rolling blackouts were only minutes away in some places in the state before more generation capacity came online
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.
The long term goals include items like reducing the Public Service Commission which oversees utilities from seven members, having watchdogs consider the health of utilities as well as the needs for ratepayers as they make decisions and allowing utilities to release less information about some projects from the public before they are approved.
Republican Sen. Luke Rankin said while the bill is barely two months old, the ideas have been debated for much longer, both in the House and generally.
"The sense of this being jammed down, fast tracked, hurried through, scuttled by everyone — I don't' take offense to that," Rankin said. "The process is the process."
The clock is ticking on the bill for 2024 though. The bill will die if not approved by the end of the session on May 9. The Senate will spend a week on the budget, leaving the body with about eight legislative days to come up with something.
Republican Sen. Sandy Senn said she was told by Dominion Energy it would take eight years to get the new gas plant online and that's why the bill was needed in 2024.
"If it will be a good bill today it will be a good bill tomorrow," Senn said.
Tuesday's opponents to the bill said they aren't against extra power. A state whose population has grown by more than 30% in the past two decades — adding more than 1.4 million people — needs it to keep the lights on in houses and big manufacturers and data farms humming without having to buy power from out of state.
But the state should pause and look at ideas like limiting data farms that use more power in a week than entire communities in a year or give more credence to solar or other greener energy solutions that backers of the bill said are currently unreliable.
Hovering over the entire debate are decisions lawmakers made nearly 20 years ago overhauling 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.
Nearly half the House was elected after the nuclear debacle, while three-quarters of senators were serving when the reactors went bust.
One of those was Democratic Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, settling into her second year with the body. She said utilities still haven't finished the cleanup of the mess burning coal left behind in her Colleton County district and she sure doesn't trust their word on this bill without a lot of scrutiny.
"There is no lesson to be learned from the second kick of a mule," she said. "Perhaps we need to take a minute and see what's happening."