Utility Consumers Should Get Their Money Back

By Barney Blakeney

SCE&G officials stunned the state’s electric and gas consumers July 31 when it announced it would abandon construction of nuclear plants in Fairfield County. But what many consumers of the utility monopoly want to know is how much more the $9 billion investment shouldered by ratepayers will cost them.

Hidden among the fees itemized on monthly bills, costs for the construction have been passed on to consumers for years. SCE&G officials said the cost to continue the project after its construction contractor went bankrupt is too much to absorb. But the cost for business expansion never is born by business owners. Those costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services. It’s no difference with SCE&G. Its shareholders will see profits no matter what the outcome of the V.C. Summers construction fiasco.

The weight of the economic debacle will be borne by consumers and those cast out of work with the abandonment of the project. We asked two local legislators what to expect.

Charleston Sen. Marlon Kimpson said consumers have every right to be outraged, but a more important question might be what other rights they have. South Carolina’s pro-business influenced general assembly built in some financial protections for the company when it passed legislation in 2007 that allows SCE&G to recoup its investment from ratepayers. That legislation essentially sanitized the company’s ability to stick their hands into consumers’ pockets, he said.

Since the boondoggle surfaced, in an effort to appear fair and forthright, SCE&G and its partner Santee/Cooper have indicated they will not pass additional costs on to consumers. But they already have collected billions for the project. Kimpson, who was not a member of the legislature when the deal was struck, said with the exception it provided much needed jobs to citizens, he’s never been excited about the project.

As the legislature reacts to the outrage from consumers and those cast into unexpected unemployment, no option should be left off the table, Kimpson said. The legislature should look for every opportunity to compensate consumers. But he warns there are no simple solutions.

Hollywood Rep. Robert Brown voted against the backdoor deal in 2007. While SCE&G shareholders, executives and lobbyists have made a lot of money in the process, consumers who paid those benefits have gotten nothing. Brown said consumers should get their money back. Realistically, that’s unlikely, he noted. But consumers, especially those who live on meager incomes, can’t afford to throw money away.

Since South Carolina Public Service Commissioners who are tasked with serving the public interest admit they didn’t see the financial wreck coming (they’re paid about $120,000 annually to do that), Brown said he hopes to be appointed to a committee that will review the situation so he can have some input. He doesn’t think much will happen to compensate consumers however. Not if South Carolina’s Republican-controlled, business friendly legislature continues to make the rules. Next year’s mid-term general elections may be an opportunity for the state’s financially manipulated consumers to change that, he said.

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