Lawmaker: Effort to save Century smelter dead

A worker at Century Aluminum searches a batch of molten aluminum for solid particles.

A last-ditch effort to save Century Aluminum’s Mount Holly operation is dead, one lawmaker said Wednesday, when a House panel meeting on the bill meant to prop up the smelter didn’t vote.

The lack of progress could deal a death blow to the Mount Holly site, which employs 300 workers. Mike Bless, president and CEO of Century Aluminum, has said he will close the smelter if the bill isn’t approved.

A subcommittee of the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee that deals with public utilities heard testimony over a bill that would let Century Aluminum buy all of its electricity on the open market, reimburse state-owned utility Santee Cooper for transmission costs and keep 300 jobs in Berkeley County.

Santee Cooper said the move would drive up costs for customers.

“We gave all we could in 2012 and even more in 2015,” Michael Baxley, senior vice president of Santee Cooper, said about prior agreements the utility has made with Century Aluminum. “If we say, ‘Go take all your power from off-system,’ then we’ve failed the best-interest test because it drives costs up for our other customers. We have to draw the line.”

The bill, which the panel took no action on, is dead, according to Rep. Jenny Horne, R-Summerville, who attended the hearing but does not sit on the panel.

“I think there’s not enough time left in the session for us to deal with this situation,” Horne said. “We were asked at the last minute to try and do a temporary fix to keep the plant open and operational for two years so that market forces could return and the nuclear power reactor could come online.”

Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas are building two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant in Jenkinsville.

The bill would create an “industrial utility” designation that has the authority to buy power from open-market suppliers, including those from out of state.

The electricity then would be transmitted over Santee Cooper’s lines to a qualifying manufacturing plant.

Century Aluminum, which has its own federally licensed utility subsidiary, is the only manufacturer in the state that qualifies under the proposed legislation.

The plant currently buys 75 percent of its power on the open market and the rest from Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper. Bless has said that arrangement can’t work in the long term because Century needs to get all of its power from utilities that produce electricity with cheaper natural gas rather than the more costly coal Santee Cooper mostly uses.

“At this power price, it will allow us to run this plant through good times and bad,” Bless said Wednesday. “As long as we have a competitive price, even when the (price of aluminum) is down, we have the confidence to know — it’s going to go back up if we keep running.”

Santee Cooper has said it can’t let Century buy all of its power from a third party because other customers would then have to subsidize the utility’s transmission of that power to Mount Holly.

Mount Holly cut its production and staff in half at the end of last year, citing the costs of a power agreement that requires it to buy 25 percent of electricity from Santee Cooper. Bless said that deal puts Mount Holly’s power costs higher than 77 percent of the world’s smelters.

Century Aluminum can cancel its electricity contract with Santee Cooper by giving a 60-day notice. The company already has met federal rules for notifying employees of a pending layoff or shutdown.

David Wren of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.