Century Aluminum is about to get another day in court in its legal tussle with Santee Cooper over power rates at the company's Berkeley County smelter.
The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the lawsuit Oct. 10, according to the court's online calendar.
But instead of convening at the circuit's Richmond, Va., headquarters, the three-judge panel will consider the case at the Elon University School of Law in North Carolina as part of an ongoing educational program. The judges typically hear three cases at a law school in their district — Century's is the first on the docket — followed by a question-and-answer session with students.
The lawsuit is one route Century has taken in recent years in attempts to reduce the amount of money it pays state-owned utility Santee Cooper for some of the electricity powering its Mount Holly plant. Electricity is the smelter's largest expense, accounting for 40 percent of the cost of producing aluminum.
Century buys three-fourths of the smelter's power on the open market, where it can negotiate low rates. It must buy one-fourth of its power from Santee Cooper, as part of the utility's agreement to transmit power to the Mount Holly site off Highway 52. Century says it can't afford to pay Santee Cooper's higher price, and the utility says it can't lower the rate without forcing other customers to subsidize the smelter.
The appeal stems from a federal judge's decision last year to dismiss Century's claims that Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper violates antitrust laws. Judge Richard Gergel said the utility is a legal monopoly created by the Legislature and, therefore, has the exclusive right to serve the smelter.
In its appeal, Century says Gergel wrongly gave Santee Cooper the same rights that state government entities have even though the utility is not regulated or supervised by the state. Century also says the decision should be overturned because no state law authorizes the utility to require electricity purchases in exchange for transmission or dictate how customers can buy power from out-of-market providers.
Santee Cooper says in court documents that Gergel's ruling was proper and should be upheld.
It can take months after the appeals court hears arguments in a case before it publishes a decision.
Chicago-based Century filed the antitrust lawsuit in early 2017 because it wants to buy all of Mount Holly's electricity on the open market at lower rates than what Santee Cooper offers. The company also tried unsuccessfully to get the state Legislature to pass a law allowing the smelter to get all of its power from a third-party provider.
Century cut production in half at the smelter in late 2015 to save costs, laying off half of the plant's 600 employees. The company has started rehiring some workers in the wake of President Donald Trump's tariffs aimed at stopping the flow of cheap aluminum imports from China.
Mike Bless, the company's president and CEO, said the tariffs "are having their intended effects" and he plans to continue operating Mount Holly at its current production rate through 2019. But he adds the plant can't return to full production without a cheaper power source.
Meanwhile, Century held an event at its Hawesville, Ky., smelter this week marking the return to full capacity of the first of three lines that will be restarted as tariffs boost the aluminum maker's bottom line. Century's smelters in Kentucky buy all of their power on the open market, and Bless has said the Mount Holly site would return to full production if it could do the same.
Mount Holly, which opened in 1979, is the nation’s newest and most technologically advanced aluminum smelter. It can produce about 231,000 metric tons of aluminum each year at full capacity.