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Over the past 12 months, consumers in the U.S. have experienced the disappearance of familiar retailers, such as Toys R Us and Sears, due in part to how online shopping has changed the way consumers shop for goods.


The historically staid electricity industry is seeing its own share of changes in the form of increased wildfire risks, rising sea levels, damaging storms and changing technology. These factors have already contributed to the bankruptcy of California utility PG&E in California.


PG&E and wildfires


The principle reason for the PG&E bankruptcy is its potential liability in the California wildfires – its power lines have been blamed for sparking fires , and the wildfire threat is projected to get worse.


A safer and more reliable electricity system costs more money, which is ultimately paid by its customers. But PG&E does not manage its system autonomously. The state regulator must decide on the equitable tradeoff between safety or reliability and cost when PG&E provides electricity service.


For example, PG&E’s current public safety power cutoff program allows it to shut off power to half a million customers when environmental conditions, such as dry weather and high winds, increase the likelihood of wildfires. The company has proposed expanding that program by about 5 million customers. This could reduce wildfire risk, but could also interrupt electricity service to more people. The California state regulator is considering whether to accept that proposal.


Seeking zero carbon emitting generation, Georgia and South Carolina turned their attention to nuclear power plants in 2008, 12 years since the last nuclear power plant, the Watts Bar Unit 1 in Tennessee, began operation. South Carolina Electric and Gas and Santee Cooper began work on the V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3, while Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the City of Dalton Utilities began work on the Vogtle Units 3 and 4.


In the face of rising construction costs, South Carolina Electric and Gas filed a petition to abandon the Summer plants on Aug. 1, 2017. In its petition, SCE&G stated that an independent analysis had shown that the cost to complete the plants was approximately three times what had been provided in early 2017. And when the board of Santee Cooper voted to suspend the project the previous day, citing cost overruns and a business climate that had changed considerably, SCE&G concluded that the only option was to abandon the plant. Included in its petition was a request to recover its US$5.3 billion share of the capital costs from customers.


On Jan. 2, 2019, SCE&G’s parent company was sold to Dominion Power, a much larger company. The state of South Carolina is exploring the potential sale of Santee Cooper while still considering how to recover its share of the plant.


In fact, of all of the electric utility bankruptcies in the modern era, beginning with Public Service Company of New Hampshire in 1988 (due to a dispute over cost recovery of the Seabrook nuclear plant), the lights in people’s homes and businesses have not gone out due to financial pressures or changes in ownership.


That’s because the regulatory framework for electric utilities provides some protection for utilities and the manner in which their system interacts with the environment. They can only operate in a manner that the regulator approves, and are allowed the opportunity to recover their costs of providing service. But that protection only applies when the utility operates within the boundaries of those laws and rules.