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SC leaders, utility chiefs eye South Carolina's energy future

Duke Energy’s W.S. Lee station in Anderson County is a combined-cycle natural gas plant. In 2018, it became the most recent, major base load generating plant to go online in South Carolina.
Photo courtesy Duke Energy
Duke Energy’s W.S. Lee station in Anderson County is a combined-cycle natural gas plant. In 2018, it became the most recent, major base load generating plant to go online in South Carolina.

“We need power, and we need a lot of it, and we need to take action today," Duke Energy Carolinas President Michael Callahan bluntly told state lawmakers.

For several days around Christmas 2022 last year, South Carolinians felt record cold temperatures.

The three major utilities that serve the state — Dominion, Duke and Santee Cooper — struggled to provide enough electricity to meet customer demand.

From Dec. 24-25, the utilities had to impose rolling blackouts on their systems.

“We (utilities) failed,” Keller Kissam, president of Dominion Energy South Carolina told a special legislative committee Oct. 18.

At that same hearing, Duke Energy Carolinas President Michael Callahan bluntly told lawmakers, “We need power, and we need a lot of it, and we need to take action today.”

Utility officials say that the anticipated growth in the state over the next 10 to 15 years could happen at a faster pace than their ability to generate the needed power. They would like to see increased pipeline capacity for natural gas, and to be on the same page with the S.C. Public Service Commission, the body which regulates them when it comes to meeting future needs.

South Carolina’s booming population growth, and record-breaking economic development also is forcing state leaders to consider actions that will ensure the state has the capacity to meet its energy needs over the next decade.

Gov. Henry McMaster formed an interagency group of state agencies to assess needs, and House Speaker Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, created a special committee charged with drafting legislation aimed at ensuring that the state doesn’t hinder additional power generation with undue utility regulation.

Smith said the situation has reached a “crisis point.”

“Providing the energy needs in South Carolina is going to be of paramount importance, not what type of energy generation we create,” Smith recently told reporters.

Smith and others say to ensure a reliable electric grid, the utilities must be allowed to continue to rely on a diverse mix of energy generation.

The state Office of Regulatory Staff says electric power is generated about equally from three major sources: nuclear, coal and natural gas. The utilities have all embraced moving toward cleaner and renewable sources for energy generation. As they move away from coal, they’ve turned primarily to natural gas. All three have additional gas-cycle power plants in their future plans, thus their desire for more pipeline capacity across the state.

John Tynan, president of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, recently urged members of the House Economic and Utility Modernization Ad Hoc Committee to make sure utilities don’t forsake their commitments to emerging clean energy sources for future power production by relying too much on large gas powered generation plants that can have lifespans lasting decades.

“We could be sitting in situations like we are with coal right now where you have all these utilities looking around, saying we have millions if not billions of dollars of stranded assets that are on the backs of ratepayers and we don’t know what to do with them,” Tynan said.

“Rather than rushing to those mega-projects (gas), let’s look at what the alternatives in the market space and energy space might be,” he added.

The Republican leadership in the S.C. House has sent a clear message to the Public Service Commission on the matter. Speaker Smith recently said the PSC is becoming an “impediment” and that lawmakers should undertake a “serious examination” of the regulatory agency.

“They (PSC) are becoming a little bit hostile to new generation and to programs that are occurring. It’s time for us to take a strong look at them,” Smith said.

All seven members of the current PSC were elected by the Legislature following the costly collapse of the V.C. Summer nuclear project in 2017.

At that time, many lawmakers faulted the former PSC for lax oversight of the project. Smith said the current PSC “over-corrected” in some of its decisions following the V. C. Summer debacle, and may not be as receptive to the need for new power generation as state policymakers would like.

Russ McKinney has 30 years of experience in radio news and public affairs. He is a former broadcast news reporter in Spartanburg, Columbia and Atlanta. He served as Press Secretary to former S.C. Governor Dick Riley for two terms, and for 20 years was the chief public affairs officer for the University of South Carolina.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) is a news reporter with South Carolina Public Radio and ETV. She worked at South Carolina newspapers for a decade, previously working as a reporter and then editor of The State’s S.C. State House and politics team, and as a reporter at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013.