South Carolina utility rate cut gets board's approval

Customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. appear likely to get a 15-percent rate cut after the state's Public Service Commission voted Monday to enact the reduction ordered by lawmakers following a multi-billion dollar failed nuclear project.

The utility had sought to use a higher rate to recover the costs of the project.

The State newspaper of Columbia reported commissioners voted unanimously and without debate to put the cut into effect. SCE&G had wanted a federal court to stop state regulators from cutting the rates it charges to recover the costs of the failed project.

The commission is expected to move forward with slashing SCE&G's electric rates at a hearing Tuesday, barring a successful legal challenge by the utility.

SCE&G says it's unfair to cut its rates and change the rules for collecting ratepayers' money for the project a decade after work stated. It says the law passed last week amounts to the state unconstitutionally taking its property and denying it the due process of law.

State lawmakers last week ordered the PSC to cut SCE&G's rates by 15 percent within five days. Eighteen percent of SCE&G customers' rates are currently going to pay for the reactors. That rate amounts to $27 monthly for the typical residential customer. The law passed last week would cut that to $5 a month.

SCE&G accused the Legislature of trying to "change the proverbial rules of the game after it has ended" in response to their constituents' demands and

A state law approved in 2007 allowed SCE&G to begin charging customers for the reactors before they were completed. That law also ordered regulators to approve rate increases when needed to complete the project. The PSC has done so nine times since the project started.

SCE&G and the state-owned utility Santee Cooper had spent more than $9 billion when they abandoned construction last July 31. SCE&G largely blamed the bankruptcy of lead contractor Westinghouse for the failure of the reactors.

It's unclear when a federal judge might consider the case. By filing the case in U.S. District Court, it avoids the state court system, whose judges are elected by the same lawmakers who ordered the rate cut.

SCE&G asked the commission to support the request for an injunction blocking an immediate refund, offering to set aside the money to be paid if a federal court eventually rejects the utility's request.

Santee Cooper's rates are not covered by the Public Service Commission. Its customers are also being charged extra for the failed project, although much less.