Most utility customers don't have the muscle to negotiate their power bills.

It's either pay up or lights out. Not so for the biggest consumers of electricity.

Alcoa's Mount Holly smelting operation is a case in point.

As disclosed by the credit firm Fitch Ratings last week, the aluminum giant and its local power provider, state-owned Santee Cooper, are of hammering out a new deal over what is typically one of private industry's biggest expenses.

For the Moncks Corner-based utility, Alcoa is in a league of its own.

Not only does the company provide hundreds of well-paying manufacturing jobs and play an active role in the community, it's also Santee Cooper's biggest industrial customer.

Alcoa's Berkeley County operation off U.S. Highway 52 near Goose Creek accounted for 9.5 percent of the utility's total sales in 2009.

According to Santee Cooper's annual report for last year, that works out to about $162 million in revenue, edging out the 2010 payroll for the Boston Red Sox.

On a daily basis, the electric bill for Alcoa's smelter averages more than $443,000, more than enough to catch the eye of Wall Street debt watchers like Fitch.

Situated on about 6,500 acres and opened in 1977 by Alumax, the local plant can churn out 235,000 tons of primary aluminum annually, according to its website. Based on that figure, the per-ton power tab comes out to $688.

Because of a renegotiation clause, the Pittsburgh-based Alcoa has the ability to terminate its contract with Santee Cooper by 2012, instead of 2015 when it matures.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Laura Varn said the talks are confidential, but she confirmed that they are ongoing.

Attention Alcoa

In one year, Santee Cooper customers saved 49.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power 3,700 households per year, through the utility's "Reduce the Use" energy-efficiency campaign.

Launched one year ago, the program is part of a $113 million, 10-year effort to reduce the use of electricity and improve energy efficiency among its 163,000 direct-serve residential and commercial customers through rebates and other programs.

The company's goal is to have 40 percent of its energy produced by nongreenhouse gas-emitting resources by 2020. For energy-efficiency measures alone, that amounts to 209 million kilowatt hours, the yearly equivalent of more than 17,000 homes being taken off the system.

Santee Cooper accomplished the measures through rebates for energy-efficient refrigerators, distribution of compact fluorescent bulbs and rebates for smart energy home builders and existing homes that convert.

Last week, the utility added rebates for energy-efficient heat pumps and water heaters. For full details, go to www.reducetheuse.com.

Watch it

A revamped website sheds a little more light on lawmaking activities that could affect South Carolina businesses.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has tweaked its Chamber Watch website, www.chamberwatch.net, which tracks state and federal policy issues that could affect the local business climate.

The new design provides voter resources and links to proposed bills as they weave their way through the complicated state and federal lawmaking process. The site also makes it easy for Chamber members to write to their representatives about business community issues.

"Acting as the catalyst to advance our region's economy, improve our quality of life, and enhance our members' success, the Chamber recognizes that to effectively work towards our goal, we need to have a strong voice in the halls of government," David Dunlap, head of Roper St. Francis Healthcare who chairs the group's public policy committee, said in a written statement.

Show goes on

It's not quite curtains yet for the Hippodrome wide-screen theater in downtown Charleston.

Co-owner Mike Furlinger, who said in the spring that he and co-owner John Brieger might close the facility in September if business didn't pick up, now says the Concord Street business will stay open at least through year's end.

"The summer was a slight improvement, enough to see us go a few more months," Furlinger said.

That's when the theater's two-year lease expires.

Furlinger said the addition of free parking in an adjoining garage has helped.

Up in the air

Judith Canales, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Business and Cooperative Service administrator, made her first trip to Charleston last week. And during a tour of the region, local people were sure to point out Boeing Co. 's grand plans to build a nearly 4,000-worker jet assembly plant at Charleston International Airport.

But in a few weeks, Canales will get a tour of Boeing's main manufacturing headquarters in Washington state.

Her mission? See if U.S. farmers can grow something that, with a little refinery magic, can power passenger jets.

With alternative emerging energy options, Canales' upcoming tour is part of an effort launched earlier this year called "Farm to Fly," she said at a community development conference last week.

Along with federal agriculture officials, the program has partnered with both Boeing and the Air Transport Association of America to explore aviation biofuels options.