This week, the Public Service Commission terminated a contract with consultants hired to help set the price for solar energy purchased from small solar companies by large utilities. This decision followed the revelation that the consulting company in question had deep ties to investor-owned utilities – prompting public outcry and legislative disapproval.
While public trust in the PSC has been low since the V.C. Summer fiasco, it is worth a reminder that the utility regulators don’t actually answer to the public – they answer to lawmakers. Specifically, they answer to a legislatively dominated board (which controls the appointment process and performs PSC members’ annual reviews) which is ultimately chosen by two legislative leaders.
In the years since the V.C. Summer project collapsed, lawmakers have examined and discussed “reforms” for nearly every aspect of utility governance – even spending large sums of taxpayer dollars on consultants to advise them on various issues – but they have consistently refused to examine the fact that the utility industry has answered to them all along, in a structure designed to maximize legislative interference while shielding all parties from accountability to ratepayers.
The decision by Santee Cooper and SCANA (the parent company of SCE&G) to abandon a multi-billion joint project to build two nuclear power facilities means that their customers were not only charged billions of dollars to build plants that won’t be finished, but will also have to pay billions more – for decades to come – of debt on the projects.
There are more questions than answers, and it will take some time to unravel the details of this decade-long debacle. What is undeniable is that not only has the energy monopoly in the state failed to the point of crisis, but the power monopoly in the Statehouse is entirely to blame for the catastrophic cost.
The long-term solution is de-regulation of the energy monopoly. In fact, it’s becoming clear that opening up the energy market and getting politicians out of the utility business is the only way South Carolinians will avoid the high cost of paying off the debt for nuclear plants that will never supply power.
Right now, angry citizens deserve serious and detailed answers about the cost, consequences, and who is accountable for both. Here’s a general overview.