Santee Cooper: Two years of missed opportunities

Florence Morning News
June 21, 2009

By Frank Knapp Jr.

In a guest column that ran in the Charleston Post & Courier on July 6, 2007, I said that Santee Cooper’s proposed coal-fired plant in Florence County was a bad business decision. Building the plant would be a bad, long-term investment. It would create an escalating financial burden to the consumer due to the increasing cost of generating electricity from coal. It will also hasten destruction to our small-business tourism economy as a result of carbon emissions contributing to climate change.

Subsequently, The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, of which I am the president and CEO, joined the S.C. Wildlife Federation in calling for the Santee Cooper Advisory Board to hold an open review of the proposed coal-fired plant. I followed that with a guest editorial in the Florence Morning News on Jan. 12, 2009. I insisted that there are better options to meet the short-term, pre-nuclear plant energy needs which include energy efficiency measures, renewable energy sources, natural gas and excess capacity from our state’s private utilities.

All of this has earned the Small Business Chamber the scorn of representatives of big business calling our position “incredulous” and our 7,500 plus member organization “a fringe group.”

So what has happened on this issue in the nearly two years since my first guest column?

Santee Cooper has spent $650 thousand for a PR campaign to scare the public into accepting the coal plant and downplaying the negative impact of carbon emissions, paid for a study that vastly over-inflated the plant’s economic impact and has held numerous public meetings to convince the public that the state-owned utility is listening.

But while Santee Cooper essentially has dug in its heels for the last two years insisting on building another coal plant, private utilities have either withdrawn or been denied permits for 83 new coal plants in the United States. Attorneys general from eight other states have asked South Carolina not to build the coal plant due to the negative consequences of its carbon emissions.

Gov. Mark Sanford now opposes the plant due to the present and future cost of coal. The head of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources opposes building the plant, as does Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela. And the Chairman of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, a critic of the Small Business Chamber’s position on this issue, told a TV reporter that a new coal plant “is not the best alternative.”

The Central Electric Power Cooperative in Columbia is the wholesale power supplier for the state’s 20 electric cooperatives. Its president and CEO, Ron Calcaterra, recently wrote that we can avoid building the new coal plant by expediting the construction of the SCE&G-Santee Cooper shared nuclear plant, investing in residential energy efficiency and having the state’s utilities collectively share their existing and future power supplies to serve the needs of the state as a whole.

Some of the board members of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental control, which is responsible for giving Santee Cooper a needed air pollution permit, have voiced serious concerns about building the coal plant. And even Santee Cooper’s board chairman, Mr. O.L. Thompson, is reported to have said, “We don’t want to build a coal plant.”

For the past two years the momentum against Santee Cooper building the coal plant has been growing. Yet the utility has remained steadfastly defensive. Mr. Calcaterra sees it clearly. “Years from now, environmentalists, regulators, politicians and utilities will mourn the missed opportunities to think big if we don’t stop the target shooting and get down to some visionary planning-together.”

It appears that only Santee Cooper and it’s shrinking band of supporters stand in the way of the needed visionary planning. Instead, the utility marches on with blinders and is promising significant rate increases over the next two years partly to fund a down payment on the new coal plant. Only Santee Cooper knows how many more rate increases residents and businesses will face if the plant is actually built.

— Frank Knapp Jr. is the president and CEO of The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

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