Wait…it’s not that peanut farming community or that military college. It’s not that kind of energy and power. It’s not that Carter. This is that other Carter, Lonnie. He’s the president and CEO of Santee Cooper, one of the great public utility success stories in America.
It’s true Carter came from quite humble beginnings, the third of six children from the quaint rural setting of Ehrhardt, South Carolina. The Carters, including several uncles, have been farming the land there for eight generations. They still do.
Lonnie Carter is much like the guy who opens the door for you at the IHOP though he got there first. He is bright, personable and gentlemanly. He owns the smile of a county fair duck-calling defending champion. He likes to connect the dots of the people he knows in common with you. He presents a down-to-earth quality in the upper echelon of corporate altitude. He is unpretentious. Instead, Carter comes from reality.
He saw it all around him growing up.
“We didn’t have anything, but we never thought about it. Nobody else had anything. My family only knew farming and that was what I had in front of me growing up. It was a good life with hard work, but decent people with healthy outlooks on everything,” Carter retold. “Heck, I never really got outside of Bamberg County until I went to college.”
“When I came to Charleston and The Citadel in 1978, I was the naïve boy from the town. Other cadets had to explain to me punch lines from jokes and when I had been insulted. I was straight from the farm. Charleston was starting to mature and come of age. It’s now so incredible. The downtown area will host people from all over the world on any given weekend. Charleston has earned prominence and notoriety. The community is often thought of as the tri-county area, but I really think it has grown even beyond that. The growth has been positive and the fact that it will continue to grow is a positive. We must all accept it and plan on it. Certainly we have to plan on it in the power business. If we grow with appropriateness, it works best for all. The traffic has not been crazy like other places. There is so much here that is a blessing,” Carter detailed.
“I was released from many responsibilities at home to go to college. My parents expected much from me. So going to college was quite a privilege. Going to The Citadel was the best decision ever. I was undisciplined in high school. The Citadel would change that. Working twelve-hour days on the farm was not unusual, so me being away at school was difficult for my parents. Working on a farm relates to the perception that farming was to be in my future. My respect for farming and those that I saw growing up that put everything into it could not be more sincere and deep. But I had no desire to farm.”
“We worked the four hundred acres in corn, soybeans, peanuts and cotton. But we couldn’t all work the farm. In fact, I worked for cash at another farm while I was in high school. That made sense to my parents. But farming was not the perfect world. I was like most kids. I got in trouble for doing things I wasn’t supposed to do, but I found out one true thing while growing up. You can get away with a lot by telling the truth. I always told the truth.” Carter began his career in 1982.
The largest employer in Moncks Corner, the county seat of Berkeley County, Santee Cooper is a state owned public utility that supplies electricity and water to much of the lower part of the state. It also exports power. Directly and indirectly, over two million South Carolinians benefit from the power source that is Santee Cooper.
Santee Cooper is simply amazing. The ‘New Deal’ project made U.S. and world history. When 12,000 workers cleared over 177,000 acres of land for one singular project in the 1930’s, two lakes were created, Lakes Marion and Moultrie. The clearing activity was the largest in U.S. history. The resulting dams and locks also featured new statistical features, one lock lift becoming the largest the world had ever seen. In the process, the striped bass, South Carolina’s most sought after freshwater prize, had to be reintroduced to other ecological environments. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources exported these fish to other areas. Striped bass are now found in 34 states.
“After I was hired at Santee Cooper, I became the computer guy that transitioned everything to electronic records. They thought I could be an analyst. After nine months, I was moved to planning. I saw that my talents would best be suited in areas where Santee Cooper was poised for growth. I moved sideways to another department that dealt with the exciting world of potential and strategies. It suited my personality.” Carter continued. In fact, it defined his career.
Carter saw the growth analytics. He knew the population trends. He was able to calculate the nexus of his training and experience to benefit his passion for the ongoing projects of this massive utility. In time, he also gained important trust from the higher levels of management. He became their president and CEO in January of 2004.
“I read the future. Debt ratios, rates, financing options, investments, and relationships with others in the industry were all components of what Santee Cooper was all about.”
In his thirty years at the utility, Carter has drawn from much departmental experience along with his training in more analytical disciplines. He sees the idea of energy as a balance of many viable sources.
“We need ‘all of the above’ solutions. There is no one resource answer to energy needs. Energy for the future will include nuclear power, coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and the balance of conservation. Energy conservation is essential. The other experimental and technological additions are helpful, like solar and wind, but they have not been developed to support the volume the world requires. In addition, the cost to build must be balanced against the future energy gained. We have the complete record on solar and wind, so we’re not dealing with rhetoric, but reality. Wind turbines may be years away from cost –effective clean energy,” Carter explained.
Carter has studied all forms of modern energy venues. “Clean energy has been done. We’re all getting better at protecting the environment. Even in our industry, the particulate matter in air has been so greatly reduced that there remains no environmental impact. There is a future in green energy, but we need to be smart and effective. We’ve got to stay balanced. The research needs to advance. But we still have to supply homes and businesses with current energy resources going forward.”
Santee Cooper is the state leader in the field of green energy production, research and advancement. Carter looks at the entire spectrum of energy and water use as part of Santee Cooper’s due diligence.
“The growth of South Carolina is intimately integrated with Santee Cooper and other providers. There is a strong correlation of economic growth and energy consumption.. Most of the growth of South Carolina trends along the coast and east of Interstate 95. South Carolina grew by nearly one million people in the last ten years. The demand for potable water will grow. This is good news economically. We are all bettered by the influx of business and the demand for services,” Carter added. “And we plan at Santee Cooper with that growth as our focus. We have to be ahead of the grid.”
When the lights go out at Carter’s office, a full day’s work has been accomplished. The parade of energy experts, politicos, suppliers and financial wizards have expanded Carter’s periphery. Employees and vice presidents, supervisors and janitors have all made their way through the wide steel reinforced boulevard of a hallway. The energy efficiencies are measured. The security is again entrusted to protect this major Lowcountry asset. Carter drives home to Laurie, his loving wife of twenty-eight years.
Lonnie Carter enlightens his constituencies. He illuminates his responsibility to thousands of employees. Carter lights up the world around him. Through his vision, brilliance, and ability to analyze, a wealth of available energy will be available to South Carolina’s foreseeable future.
Thomas (Tommy) McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.