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Santee Cooper: Electricity rate hearings become forum on coal plant

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A proposed increase in electricity rates is a concern for area residents, but public hearings indicate the bigger issue may be how Santee Cooper will spend the additional money.

“You may not believe it, but I don’t object to your rate increase,” said John Bracken of North Litchfield. “What I do object to is your intention to build a coal-fired power plant.”

Bracken was one of six people who addressed officials with the state-owned utility at a public hearing in Pawleys Island last week. Seven people spoke at a hearing on the rate increases in Murrells Inlet on Monday.

A common complaint was that some of the money from the increases will go toward new generating facilities to meet the energy needs of a growing customer base. That includes a coal-fired plant on the Pee Dee River in Florence County.

The proposed plant would have “significant short- and long-term costs,” said Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League, citing the cost of construction, fuel and fees for carbon emissions.

“All of this will require continuous rate increases for years to come,” she said. “Instead, we ask Santee Cooper and its board to invest in programs that decrease energy use and increase the use of renewable energy and natural gas.

Members of the Georgetown County League of Women Voters also asked Santee Cooper to eschew a new coal-fired plant and preserve the quality of life in the region by focusing its efforts on energy conservation programs and renewable energy.

The league opposes any rate increase that would benefit a new coal-fired plant, as the technology for capture and storage of carbon dioxide “has not been proven to be feasible or safe,” said Pat Lacy, the chapter president.

In addition, the national League of Women Voters has called for a 10-year moratorium on the building of new coal-fired plants.

The proposed rate increase would take place over two years. Residential customers would see an average annual increase of 7.5 percent in their bills beginning in November and an another 7.6 percent in November 2010.

For a residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month, that would mean an extra $6.47 a month this year and another $8 a month when the second increase takes effect. If approved, the increase would be the utility’s first since 1996.

Molly Gore, a spokeswoman for the state-owned utility, said only a small percentage of the revenue will be directed toward the coal-fired plant. It comprises 1.5 percent of total non-fuel costs in 2010 and 2.2 percent in 2011. “We’ll actually be directing less toward that than we will our nuclear efforts,” Gore said.

Even if the utility scrapped plans for a coal-fired plant, it’s obligated to ensure energy is available for its customers, so it would have to come up with plans for something else, and a rate increase would still be needed, she explained.

“Coal is the most affordable fuel source and that’s why it’s a part of our mix,” Gore said.

The utility provides electricity directly to 163,000 customers in Georgetown, Horry and Berkeley counties. But it also serves 725,000 customers around the state who are served by electric cooperatives.

Santee Cooper has also proposed charging a higher rate for electricity from June through September. That also concerned Lacy, who worried about the effect it might have on tourism.

“Are all these rental units going to have to deal with that?” she asked. “The owners of these places are going to have sky high billing and, in turn, will have to raise their rates when we’re in a tough economy.”

Peter Eisenberg of Heritage Plantation said he also has concerns about a new coal-fired plant and would also rather the utility invest in energy efficiency and “green power.”

“But my real concern is from living on a fixed income,” he said.

Joe Schoemann expressed similar worries at the hearing in Murrells Inlet. If the rate increases make his electric bill go up “even $30 or $40,” he said, “I have to take that from somewhere else, because I’m on a fixed income.”

He asked Santee Cooper board members to keep that in mind when they make their decision and consider a cap on rates.

“When these two years go by, what happens after 2011, in 2012 and 2013?” Schoemann asked. “Are we looking at the same kind of increases in those years?”

David Taylor scolded officials at the Murrells Inlet Community Center because the room was too cold, a waste of energy. If people stopped wearing suits in the summer, he said, thermostats could be raised by 10 degrees and that would go a long way toward energy conservation.

The board will make a decision on the increases Aug. 24. Public comments can be submitted through July 5. For information, visit www.santeecooper.com/rates.

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