August 13, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Santee Cooper: Powering S.C. and Paying Well

The NerveSantee Cooper is South Carolina’s largest power producer, generates the power distributed by the state’s 20 electric cooperatives and provides water to 137,000 Lowcountry consumers.

It also pays a pretty penny to many who work for the utility. Consider:

  • Of the company’s approximately 1,800 employees, more than 850 earn at least $50,000 annually;
  • The top 250 bring home more than $86,000 a year; and
  • The top 20 executives net a combined $4 million-plus each year.

Topping the list is Chief Executive Lonnie Carter, who pulls down a hefty $404,756 a year, according to the S.C. Salary Database.That’s nearly four times what Gov. Mark Sanford earns and makes Carter the Palmetto State’s second-highest paid employee, behind W. Stuart Smith of the Medical University Hospital Authority.

In fact, if you take away institutions of higher learning, five of South Carolina’s top six employees in terms of earning power work for Santee Cooper.

Formerly known as the S.C. Public Service Authority, Santee Cooper was completed in 1942 and today delivers electricity to more than 160,000 retail customers in Berkeley, Georgetown and Horry counties, as well as the cities of Bamberg and Georgetown, and the Charleston Air Force Base.

It also provides the power that is distributed among the state’s 20 electric cooperatives, to more than 685,000 customers in all 46 counties.

Santee Cooper was built with federal aid in the waning days of the Great Depression and has since been maintained by its own revenue.

State law requires Santee Cooper to make a financial contribution to the state treasury.

In 2004, an investment bank was hired to analyze privatizing the utility. Also, Sanford pushed Santee Cooper to contribute more revenue to the state by selling more “surplus” property and by operating more efficiently. However, his interest in changing the way the utility operated raised legislative hackles.

The South Carolina Policy Council has recommended several times over its 24-year history that Santee Cooper be sold, going back at least as far as 1992.

Privatizing Santee Cooper, which generates power with coal-fired plants and hydroelectric dams, would create a more competitive outfit that would put more money in state coffers, the Policy Council contends.

But officials at the Moncks Corner-based utility claim the proposition would only drive up consumer prices.

It’s somewhat difficult to do an apples-to-apples salary comparison between Santee Cooper executives and those of SCANA, South Carolina’s other large utility, but SCANA seems to come out well ahead.

Bill Timmerman, chief executive of SCANA, which is publicly traded, earned a total compensation package of more than $6.8 million in 2008, according to information filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

But if you discount such perks as stock awards, options, non-equity incentive plan compensation and “other compensation,” Timmerman earned a little less than $1.3 million last year.

It’s unclear what benefits Carter may receive in addition to his salary. Bill Mescher, CEO of Santee Cooper from 1976 to 1989, was receiving a $90,000-a-year pension from the utility as well as a land lease for his lakefront home at $350 a year in 2005, according to a report in the Myrtle Beach Sun News. He died in 2007.

SCANA, the parent of S.C. Electric and Gas, has assets of more than $11.5 billion as of the end of 2008, according to SEC filings. Santee Cooper had slightly more than $6.5 billion in assets as of Dec. 31, 2008.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or at


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The Nerve