Century Aluminum’s fate could be decided at Santee Cooper board meeting

The board of directors for Moncks Corner-based electric utility Santee Cooper will meet Monday to discuss power negotiations with Century Aluminum’s Mount Holly smelter.

Moncks Corner-based electric utility Santee Cooper is staying mum about Monday’s planned discussions on the future of its power deal with Century Aluminum’s Mount Holly smelter.

But state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek and a former top executive at the plant, said he’s confident a solution will be reached to keep the smelter open beyond the Dec. 31 expiration date for the current electricity contract that supports about 600 jobs.

Campbell said he hopes that news comes as early as Monday.

“I expect there’s going to be a bona-fide effort to see if there’s something that can be done to make this work,” Campbell said. “We’ve been looking at several different options to keep those jobs.”

Santee Cooper’s board will hold a special meeting via telephone conference at 9 a.m. at the utility’s headquarters. The board will meet in closed session at first, and a public announcement will be made afterward.

Mollie Gore, the utility’s spokeswoman, said she does not know what will be discussed other than what’s on the agenda. That document states the board will meet to talk about “contract negotiations and receive legal advice with regard to the Century industrial contract.”

Michael Bless, Century’s CEO, said he doesn’t know what the board will be considering.

“All we know is they called that board meeting and we’re on the edge of our seat to hear what they have to say,” Bless said. “But we don’t know any more than that.”

Bless is hoping the utility accepts a proposal he made earlier this month that would reimburse Santee Cooper for any electric transmission capacity the utility loses if Century buys all of its power from an out-of-state supplier.

Century currently buys 75 percent of its power from out of state and the remaining 25 percent from Santee Cooper, which then transmits all of that electricity over its power lines to the plant off Highway 52. The aluminum company wants to buy 100 percent of its power from out of state and pay Santee Cooper about $60 million over five years to transmit it.

Santee Cooper says it can’t accept such a deal because it would force other customers to subsidize Mount Holly’s electric supply.

However, Bless said he’s willing to pay Santee Cooper for any of the transmission capacity the utility actually needs but can’t get if it transmits 100 percent out-of-state power to Mount Holly.

“Tell us every month, every quarter, every six months or whatever ... send us a calculation of that import capacity, that 25 percent that you wanted to use but couldn’t because Mount Holly is using it, and we’ll pay the incremental amount,” Bless said. “If you can prove to us after the fact that you really did need it, no problem, we’ll pay the additional amount.”

Bless said Santee Cooper’s projections show its transmission capacity needs will decrease in coming years. Gore said such calculations are difficult and the utility needs available capacity for growth — Myrtle Beach, one of its key markets, is among the nation’s fastest-growing areas — and future development, such as a Volvo car factory in Berkeley County that ultimately will get its power from Santee Cooper.

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“I thought it was a winner,” Bless said of the proposal, adding that Santee Cooper rejected it. It’s not clear if that proposal will come up again during Monday’s meeting.

Gore said Century has not presented any plan that would not affect other ratepayers, adding that if there had been such a proposal, “we would have done it a long time ago.”

This week, New York officials said they would give $30 million in power concessions and $38 million more for facility expenses to keep Alcoa’s Massena West smelter open. Alcoa previously had announced the facility would close after the first of next year.

Campbell, a former Alcoa executive who oversaw plants in several states, including the Mount Holly smelter when it was co-owned with Century, said he doesn’t believe the money exists for a similar deal in South Carolina. Century bought out Alcoa’s majority ownership a year ago.

“It’s up to them to make it happen,” Campbell said, referring to Century and Santee Cooper. “It is in everybody’s best interest to keep jobs, not to lose jobs. There’s a solution if both sides will negotiate.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_