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Century Aluminum wants to restart idled US smelter capacity: CEO

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Century Aluminum wants to restart idled US smelter capacity: CEO

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Century Aluminum would move immediately to restart more than 100,000 mt/year of its idled smelter capacity in the US if it could lower electricity costs for its Mt Holly smelter in South Carolina, Michael Bless, the company's president and CEO, said Wednesday.

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The 224,000 mt/year smelter has been running just one of its two potlines for about two years, due to an ongoing dispute with longtime power provider Santee Cooper over contracted prices.

Asked during an earnings call what it would take to bring shuttered capacity at Mt. Holly and another US smelter back online, and when such a decision might be made, Bless said that for Mt. Holly, it would come "as soon as we can get the last 25% of that power from the market."

Bless consistently refers to Mt. Holly as Century's most modern and efficient US smelter. But he insists Century cannot afford to restart the plant's second potline as long as it is paying higher than market prices for power from Santee Cooper.

Under a three-year agreement reached by the two parties in 2015, Century is allowed to purchase 75% of the smelter's power from third parties, but still must buy 25% from Santee Cooper. A hearing related to the dispute has been scheduled for September 1 (See story, 2123 GMT).

"If we could achieve through our litigation or otherwise the last 25% to get to market, we'd restart that today," Bless reiterated, though he acknowledged it would take "several months" to actually resume production once a decision was made.

Low London Metal Exchange aluminum prices have kept the company's 252,000 mt/year Hawesville smelter in western Kentucky running at about 40% for the past two years, with only two of its five potlines making aluminum.

Bless suggested Century also would like to restart some capacity at Hawesville, which already buys all of its electricity from the less expensive wholesale market -- as does Century's 211,000 mt/year Sebree smelter, also in western Kentucky.

Hawesville currently "makes money," he said, highlighting improved performance during 2017. But a restart of additional potlines at Hawesville depends more on LME pricing, he said.

Century might restart potlines at Hawesville "if we had some confidence that the current price environment, at the very least, was going to persist," he said. "We're just not quite there yet."

During the past year or so, Bless and Century have led the charge in the US against what they claim are illegal subsidies by the Chinese government of that country's aluminum industry. In January, the US filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the Chinese subsidies.

The US Commerce Department, under the Trump administration, also is conducting a Section 232 inquiry into the effects of aluminum and steel imports on US national security.

Bless supports the investigation but is not sure where it will lead.

"It's difficult to predict where this process heads and the timing," he said. "But the order itself is an admission that the administration understands the problem."

He added that "the good news" is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the administration appear to be taking the matter seriously.

"We're convinced they're focused," he said. "This one hasn't been shunted to the side. They're working actively on it," although it is difficult to predict "in what form it comes and when it comes."

Century posted second-quarter net income of $7.1 million on revenue of $388.8 million, up 6% from the first quarter.

Shelly Harrison, senior vice president of finance and treasurer, said Century expects to realize a $15 million EBITDA benefit on power capacity costs at Hawesville and Sebree mainly during the third quarter.

--Bob Matyi,
--Edited by Lisa Miller,