April 13, 2021
Fifty years ago, Isaac Samuel Leevy Johnson, Herbert Fielding and I stepped into the state capitol to take our places as South Carolina’s first Black members of the General Assembly.
It was a milestone on a road of transformational change. And, with the work, blood, sweat and tears of many, we grew from just eight Black elected officials in the entire state to more than 900 today.
When I’ve had the opportunity to push for transformation, I’ve jumped at the chance.
South Carolina has such an opportunity today. And we should jump at it.
At issue is South Carolina’s state-owned utility, Santee Cooper. The Legislature is considering selling it to an investor-owned utility. NextEra Energy is the leading contender.
The Legislature must rise to the occasion and sell Santee Cooper to NextEra. If we want a cleaner environment, a top-notch energy system, elimination of Santee Cooper’s debt and a growing economy, the state must sell.
The need to sell Santee Cooper is broadly supported in the African-American community. Twenty NAACP chapters have endorsed a sale, as have church leaders Bishop F. C. James of the AME Church and Dr. Donald Greene, president of the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina.
The issue of choosing a utility may seem mundane. But it’s not mundane for a family forced to decide between turning on the heat or putting food on the table. It’s not mundane for a struggling business whose high electricity costs could plunge it from profitability to failure.
Nearly a third of U.S. households struggle to pay their energy bills, and those shivering or sweltering tend to be families of color, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The least privileged are the first to feel the pain of a broken system. What is a bump in the road for those with means and privilege can be a roadblock for people who lack either. The poorest passengers stuck in the bowels of a sinking ship are the first to drown.
Santee Cooper is a sinking ship.
It is more than $6 billion in debt, more than half of that from a nuclear plant it tried and failed to build. The debt – collecting interest of nearly $1 million every day – will be passed to our grandchildren, with nothing to show for it.
Santee Cooper is too reliant on coal. Our community lives downstream from their plants’ noxious discharge, its fumes in our nostrils. The rising floodwaters from climate change fill our homes and lap at our feet.
Santee Cooper bears a notable lack of diversity in its upper management that doesn’t reflect the people of South Carolina. For a state government-owned and -controlled agency, this is unacceptable.
We can change all that.
NextEra Energy is a better choice.
It is recognized for its competence and performance. It was chosen utility of the year in 2020 and consistently wins awards and recognition for diversity, ethics and reliability.
NextEra leads on clean energy – in fact, it is the largest generator of wind and solar energy in the world.
Its rates are 30 percent lower than the national average.
NextEra proves that you can have clean and affordable energy.
In 2019 alone, NextEra awarded $640 million in contracts to minority and disadvantaged female- and veteran-owned businesses.
No corporation is perfect, and if NextEra purchases Santee Cooper, we must hold them accountable. We will be aided in this by the Public Service Commission which would oversight the utility, a measure of accountability Santee Cooper evades.
Santee Cooper and its enablers seek to distract us with promises of “reform” – but don’t be fooled.
If you patch together a rusty car with Bondo and spray on a fresh coat of paint but keep the same neglectful, reckless owner, you end up with the same wrecked and rusty car. We’ve suffered that clunker long enough.
I call on the Legislature to choose a better option – a cleaner energy future for our children, unburdened by debt. A future where a well-run, clean energy utility helps, not hinders, our state’s economy.
Fifty years ago, we took the opportunity to change the future of South Carolina. We can change it again. Our children expect, and deserve, no less. It is time to sell Santee Cooper.
James L. Felder is a Sumterite and the author of “I Buried John F. Kennedy,” “Civil Rights in South Carolina” and “The Making of an AME Bishop.” He is a member of the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame, a U.S. Army veteran and one of the first three Black men elected to the S.C. Legislature since Reconstruction. He is part of the Gullah Geechee Leadership Institute.