Santee Cooper board suspends coal plant plans
By Molly Parker
Published Aug. 24, 2009
Santee Cooper’s board has voted to suspend the utility’s plans to build a $1.25 billion coal plant on the banks of the Great Pee Dee River.
The vote effectively puts an end to the controversial plant that Santee Cooper executives argued was necessary to power industrial growth and keep the lights on across the state.
Lonnie Carter, CEO of the state-owned utility, said the recent economic downturn has slackened short-term and long-term projected electricity demands on the system. Sales are down 5% from last year, the utility said. Carter has argued for months that Santee Cooper would run short of power by 2013 without the new plant; the utility faced staunch criticism from environmental groups bemoaning coal as a dirty and outdated form of electricity.
“In particular, the recession’s impact on our industrial customers has been significant. In addition, we anticipate that as the economy recovers from this economic downturn, long-term power needs will be lower,” Carter said in a statement.
Santee Cooper officials said the decision was also driven by proposed federal cap-and-trade legislation that could significantly increase the operating costs of coal-fired plants. Additionally, Santee Cooper’s largest customer, Central Electric Power Cooperative, intends to gradually reduce its power load from the utility, Santee Cooper board Chairman O.L. Thompson said. Central Electric plans to cut approximately 1,000 megawatts beginning in 2013.
Central Electric buys power wholesale from Santee Cooper and distributes it to the state’s 20 electric cooperatives. Under the board’s deal, five of those electric co-ops would receive power from another provider. Those five co-ops are located in the Upstate and would presumably receive their electricity from Duke Energy.
Santee Cooper is the state’s largest power producer, supplying electricity to more than 163,000 retail customers in Berkeley, Georgetown, and Horry counties; 29 large industrial facilities; the cities of Bamberg and Georgetown; and the Charleston Air Force Base. Santee Cooper also generates the power distributed by the state’s 20 electric cooperatives to more than 700,000 customers in all 46 counties.
Thompson said Santee Cooper customers could benefit from the decision to suspend the plant because they might not need to bear the capital costs of the construction of the facility.
“This could end up being a true benefit for Santee Cooper customers,” Thompson said. “They have supported us through the permitting process to date, and I trust they will understand that we are acting today in the best interest of our customers, our bondholders and the state of South Carolina. We must always remain flexible to do what is best for the system.”
Giff Daughtridge, vice president and general manager of Nucor Steel Berkeley — among Santee Cooper’s top electricity consumers — said he trusts the board of Santee Cooper to “do the right thing for the utility and for their customers.”
“If there’s anything going on that would in any way interrupt the supply of power to Nucor, we would know about it, and we’ve not heard anything about it,” Daughtridge said.
Santee Cooper already spent tens of millions of dollars planning for the two-unit, coal-fired facility in rural Florence County. Spokeswoman Laura Varn said the utility had spent $217 million on the permitting and planning process as of February.
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