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Goose Creek asks SC Supreme Court to handle electricity dispute with Santee Cooper

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Goose Creek is asking the state Supreme Court to resolve a dispute between the city and Santee Cooper over who can supply power to Century Aluminum’s smelter in Berkeley County. File/Staff

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The S.C. Supreme Court is being asked to settle a dispute over who can supply electricity to Century Aluminum’s smelting plant in Berkeley County.

The City of Goose Creek asked the state’s highest court in March to decide whether the municipality can take over Century’s power contract from Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-run utility.

Century has tried for years to end its relationship with Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper in order to buy electricity on the open market where they say prices are lower. But the aluminum company has never been able to accomplish that goal.

That’s why Century partnered with Goose Creek officials last year to create a new municipal electric utility that would help the aluminum company buy electricity from outside the state.

In return, Century agreed to support the city’s push to annex its smelting plant and surrounding property.

The problem is that Santee Cooper believes it has an exclusive right to serve the property Century is located on. That’s largely because electric utilities in South Carolina are given set service territories where they maintain monopolies.

The motion to the Supreme Court isn’t the first complaint to be filed against Santee Cooper. City leaders and Century’s executives have also filed several lawsuits in state court.

In their motion to the Supreme Court, the city’s attorneys argued Santee Cooper should not be able to prevent Goose Creek from taking over the power contract for Century. And they emphasized that city residents voted in a referendum last year to form the new municipal electric utility.

“Given its actions over the past several months, it is clear that Santee Cooper is opposed to, and is purposefully impeding, Goose Creek’s efforts to become a municipal electric utility and to provide its customers with electricity, which the city is entitled by law to do,” Goose Creek’s attorneys wrote.

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Santee Cooper’s attorneys, however, pointed out that a federal judge already handled a similar dispute with Century in 2017 and ruled in Santee Cooper’s favor.

“Regardless of whether Goose Creek has the authority to create an electric utility, it does not have the authority to create an electric utility that serves the Century Aluminum Facility in Santee Cooper’s exclusive service territory,” Santee Cooper’s attorneys wrote.

If Century gets its way, Santee Cooper said power prices for its other customers might increase. They argue that would happen because Santee Cooper would be unable to buy and transport as much low-cost electricity from outside the state.

The city wants the state’s Supreme Court justices to resolve the issue before the end of the year. That’s when Santee Cooper’s current contract with Century ends.

The city’s request to the Supreme Court is receiving interest from some very powerful people. State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, submitted a brief last week asking them to take up the case.

Leatherman, who is widely considered the most powerful lawmaker in the state, did not pick a side in the legal battle but emphasized he wanted the issue resolved as quickly as possible.

State lawmakers are still considering whether to sell Santee Cooper to Florida-based NextEra Energy, the country’s largest investor-owned power provider, and Leatherman doesn’t want questions about Century’s power contract to get in the way of that.

Century is the only electric customer Goose Creek currently has lined up for the new municipal electric utility. But city officials believe more electric customers could be added in the future if other property near the aluminum plant is developed.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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