In South Carolina, the government is in the energy business.

Santee Cooper is a state-owned energy company that provides power to many low-income residents in the southern half of the state. Over its history, Santee Cooper has arguably produced some benefits for South Carolina. But taxpayers and those low-income Santee Cooper Customers were quietly dealt a massive blow when a joint project between Santee Cooper and the private utility company SCANA to build a nuclear power plant fell through.

After the nuclear plant project was killed, both companies were left with more than $4 billion each in debt. Governing Magazine called the project “one of the greatest wastes of money in any state’s history,” a state legislator said it was so bungled it was almost “designed to fail.”

Because SCANA is a private company, it has a wide base of ratepayers, stockholders and bondholders to cover its debt. But since Santee Cooper is taxpayer owned and serves many low-income residents, unless the agency is sold, taxpayers and the South Carolinians who can least afford it are the only ones who will be left to cover the massive losses.

An important pillar of the Palmetto Promise Institute’s work is fighting for effective energy policies and energy freedom for South Carolina. Santee Cooper’s failures made it clear that this issue could not wait any longer. Santee Cooper needs to be sold.

Palmetto Promise launched a campaign to protect the ratepayers who weren’t being told the truth and the taxpayers who could potentially be saddled with billions of dollars in debt. Palmetto needed to expose how bad political deals and short-sighted policy decisions created this mess for taxpayers, but clearing up the confusion about how South Carolina got here to begin with was the first step.

The debate surrounding Santee Cooper isn’t clean cut

Depending on where a person lives in South Carolina, they might get their power from Santee Cooper or a power cooperative (which could partially use power from Santee Cooper), or a private energy company such as SCANA. Also, because the nuclear project was shared between Santee Cooper and SCANA, many residents were confused about how much debt taxpayers were potentially liable for and how rates would increase depending on the household. And on top of all that, Santee Cooper refused to tell the public the truth about their massive debt. Neither would they admit that they would need to increase rates or get a taxpayer bailout to stay afloat.

Government policy debates are rarely simple, but the Santee Cooper campaign was especially complex. Taxpayers and the media needed a clear understanding of the issue as a whole.

The Palmetto team produced an all-encompassing research report about the cost of Santee Cooper’s failed nuclear project for taxpayers and implemented a marketing campaign to educate people on the truth about energy in South Carolina.

Palmetto Promise Institute’s research report was a bombshell

The Institute exposed how Santee Cooper’s debt was dangerously higher than the energy company was letting on. The report also revealed how taxpayers and Santee Cooper’s low-income customers would undoubtedly be on the hook for billions.

Palmetto used extreme due diligence to ensure their report’s accuracy. Because it was presented in an understandable and consumable way, it was widely covered in the media. All three of the state’s largest newspapers and many smaller outlets across South Carolina covered Palmetto’s report, and the Associated Press wrote a story that received attention nationwide.

Santee Cooper couldn’t avoid the topic any longer and was forced to put out a statement admitting how much their rate hikes would impact South Carolina taxpayers.

In addition to Palmetto’s work with the media, the Institute’s unique and creative marketing campaign ensured that taxpayers and lawmakers had the data and background to decide the proper future for Santee Cooper.

Palmetto purchased a billboard facing the statehouse to display their message to lawmakers as they were voting on Santee Cooper legislation. They produced easily understandable one-pagers for lawmakers, which laid out the important data about Santee Cooper’s debt. And finally, one of the state’s most influential media outlets, the Post and Courier newspaper, relied on Palmetto to provide them with data and research for multiple editorials about the Santee Cooper debacle.

And if all that wasn’t enough of a testament to Palmetto’s effective marketing campaign, South Carolina’s governor tweeted that Palmetto’s report should be “required reading” for all South Carolina legislators.

SC Governor tweet praises Palmetto Promise Institute's report

Within three weeks of the report being released, South Carolina legislators formed a commission and hired an outside firm to investigate Santee Cooper and make recommendations about its future. South Carolina’s Governor even appointed himself to serve on the commission. Palmetto Promise’s report recommended that the legislature take all these steps, and they would not have happened without the Palmetto Promise Institute.

The SPN Network is dedicated to improving people’s lives

That mission can take many forms. For the Palmetto Promise Institute, that mission was to get the truth to South Carolina taxpayers.

It’s because of the dedication of SPN members like Palmetto and the support from the SPN Network that an organization with limited resources and a full-time staff of only two can take on an entire state agency—and win.

When discussing the campaign, Palmetto’s CEO Ellen Weaver said, “Without SPN groups like ours shining a light on failed policies, there would be a vacuum for taxpayers.”

In South Carolina that vacuum meant that taxpayers and low-income residents would be on the hook for billions. But instead, South Carolinians are now closer than ever before to energy freedom and responsible, affordable state energy policies. For their dedication and success in advancing free-market energy solutions, Palmetto Promise Institute was awarded State Policy Network’s 2018 Bob Williams Award for Most Influential Research.