Board that sets utility rates overhauled in SC

Opponents of additional nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville have protested before the SC Public Service Commission about twin reactors at the V.C. Summer nuclear site in Fairfield County. They voiced concerns about higher rates and the need for the plants. Construction of the plants was later abandoned.

FILE PHOTO, TIM DOMINICK/tdominick@thestate.

The S.C. Legislature elected four new members for the Public Service Commission on Wednesday in a state where a nuclear construction fiasco, high monthly power bills and water rate increases have left customers frustrated with the utility oversight board.

Legislators chose lowcountry planner and conservationist Carolee Williams, Upstate water consultant Mike Caston, Rock Hill-area businessman Headen Thomas and Pee Dee lawyer Delton Powers for seats on the seven-member commission.

Wednesday’s vote offered hope to PSC critics that customers would receive more consideration when the PSC decides whether to approve utility rate increases sought by power companies, water utilities and others.

The Legislature’s action is significant because it represents a complete overhaul of the commission since the 2017 V.C. Summer nuclear construction failure sparked customer outrage about higher power bills associated with the project.

The PSC had been accused of failing to properly oversee rate hikes that helped SCE&G but saddled customers with higher bills to pay for the project. Utilities spent $9 billion before walking away.

The PSC has been criticized for more than the failed nuclear project. Many water and sewer customers have been upset with the commission’s stance toward private utilities in raising rates. Environmentalists have expressed frustration at the PSC’s positions on alternative forms of energy, such as solar power.

Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, said the commissioners elected Wednesday simply were best qualified for the job. The four winners wound up being unopposed because a handful of people withdrew before Wednesday’s election.

Alexander, who chairs the Public Utilities Review Committee, said the new commissioners will take over as soon as their schedules allow, and transition will take over in the next few weeks.

“It was purely based on their qualifications and their ability to serve if they were elected,” Alexander said, noting that “There’s a value in experience and there’s value in having others who don’t have experience on the commission.”

“I think it’s just looking for people that are well rounded, who have experience that will be an asset to the commission and all the complicated issues that come before them. We want folks to to be able to evaluate those and make the best decision for the people of South Carolina and for the state of South Carolina.’’

Among other duties, the Public Service Commission sets rates for electricity provided by investor-owned utilities, as well as water and sewer service rates for private companies.

The commission has plenty of issues to deal with in coming months, including whether to grant a rate increase to Dominion Energy at a time when many people have lost their jobs because of Covid 19. The commission also is in the midst of working out the details of solar energy reforms in a state that, until just a few years ago, was one of the least friendly in the nation to sun power.

In winning the full-time positions on the PSC, the new commissioners will earn more than $100,000.

By some accounts, the four new commissioners represent a break from past commissioners who were favored by power companies.

Williams replaces long-serving PSC member Butch Howard; Caston takes over for veteran member Randy Randall; Thomas replaces Swain Whitifield, who served as chairman, and Powers takes the seat held for years by O’Neal Hamilton.

Williams, a former planner for the city of Charleston who also worked with the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, represented the city on a federal task force that examined renewable energy. She has a masters degree from the University of Virginia.

She had tried unsuccessfully in the past to unseat Howard, but records obtained by The State in 2017 indicated utilities favored Howard over Williams.

In 2016, SCE&G delayed seeking approval for a budget increase before the PSC until after the Howard-Williams race had been decided in the Legislature. Critics speculated that the power company was afraid legislators would pressure Howard not to approve the increase if it was requested before the PSC election, The State reported in 2017. After the election, the PSC approved the budget increase, The State reported.

Caston, an engineer and president of a consulting company, is the former general manager of the Startex-Jackson-Wellford-Duncan Water District in the Upstate. He has served on the state’s Drought Response Committee. He has a masters degree from Clemson and the University of South Carolina.

Thomas, an accountant and Wofford College graduate, worked for Piedmont Natural Gas from 1983-2006. Powers has a law degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a former magistrate in Marlboro County, a former special prosecutor and a former member of the S.C. Coastal Council, a panel that formerly decided on coastal construction requests.

The members will join sitting commissioners Justin Williams, Tom Ervin and Florence Belser, who came onto the PSC after the V.C. Summer project failure.

The Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which has pushed for energy reform and improvements at the PSC, said it was encouraged by the slate of commissioners chosen by the Legislature.

Deputy director Rebecca Haynes said she hopes the commissioners will provide new perspective and will have a “fresh approach to really hearing both sides of every case.’’

“The PSC impacts every piece of our lives as residents of South Carolina that need utilities,’’ Haynes said. “So this is a big deal for South Carolina ratepayers. Hopefully this is a fair slate of commissioners to take on these issues.’’

Dominion Energy, the Virginia company that acquired SCE&G after the nuclear plant failure, said in a statement that the utility “congratulates the new commissioners on their election.’’ Dominion serves the Columbia, Charleston, Aiken and Hilton Head Island areas of South Carolina.

“Dominion Energy supports the process of selecting members of the Public Service Commission of South Carolina and appreciates the General Assembly’s efforts to elect commissioners who serve such an important role for our industry and the state.’’

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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