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Utilities: Schools and parks brace for higher electric bills

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Beth Goodale, Georgetown County recreation director, says the cost of playing outdoor sports at night is going up — way up.

Goodale told members of the county’s Recreation Commission Monday the cost of lighting a playing field will increase by as much as 500 percent after Santee Cooper phases in a rate increase over the next eight years. She said the county pays about $4,100 a year to light a ball field for softball, baseball, soccer and football. She said estimates put that cost at $21,000 under the new electricity rates. The rate hike will also hit the Georgetown County School District’s facilities.

Molly Gore, spokesman for Santee Cooper, said the adjustments follow a comprehensive rate review and a two-part implementation in December 2012 and 2013. Customers are just becoming aware of it. “We have a goal to set rates that are fair to customers,” Gore said. “Of course, customer needs change over the years. That’s why we do reviews. This most recent rate exercise showed lighted ball fields operating on a rate that no longer matched usage patterns. The rates were set up in a day when there were not a lot of ball fields and not enough demand to impact our power system. Today we have large sports complexes with a much greater impact on our system.”

Goodale said the county would review its electrical use in an effort to save money. “I can see us managing field lighting use much more carefully,” she told the commission. “Utilities are already expensive. We’ll have to be more creative, look at LED lighting and energy efficiency. It’s going to be tough.”

Goodale said the lighting in parking lots and sidewalks is not the issue. Those lights are part of rental agreements that includes the cost of electricity. Field lighting is the issue. “We’ll be going through an exercise to determine the cost per hour,” Goodale said.

County School Superintendent Randy Dozier said Georgetown County’s public schools had an electric bill around $2 million last year. “We have to be one of the biggest customers,” he said.

The district hasn’t calculated the cost of the rate increase. “If we have to pay more, it’s going to take away from classrooms,” Dozier said. “It’s a little disappointing.”

Bill Crompton, the district facilities director, said he didn’t think the increase would be as much as the county parks department is projecting.

The district used a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to begin implementing an energy management system. It allows central control and monitoring of energy use and has reduced costs even as rates have increased.

Dozier said the district will look to the energy management system to offset the impact of Santee Cooper’s rate increases. He also plans to meet with County Administrator Sel Hemingway to discuss the impact of the change and lobby the state-owned utility to reconsider. That may also include the county’s state legislative delegation, Dozier said.

Gore said Santee Cooper would work with customers to help them adjust to the new rates. “It is a big step,” she said, “and we are transitioning over the next eight to 10 years so they can absorb the change gradually. It gives ball fields and others impacted by this time to work on ways to reduce power consumption or move operations to off-peak rates.”

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