Century plan called 'absurd, ridiculous, risky'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two alternatives Century Aluminum presented Friday to the West Virginia Public Service Commission in the ongoing special electric-rate case still puts the Jackson County company's risks onto Appalachia Power Co.'s customers, which the PSC has adamantly rejected.
"They've proposed what they call two different alternatives but, in reality, they're after what they've been after all along, which is to ship all of their business risks onto the customers of Appalachia Power," said Byron Harris, executive director of the PSC's Consumer Advocate Division. "It's very perplexing. It's almost as if they didn't read the order that the commission [filed]. I can't understand how they think the commission would suddenly reverse itself."
Century's proposal doesn't fundamentally change anything it has been asking for, Harris said.
In Friday's filing, Century said one of its plans -- an "Immediate Restart Modification" - would allow the Ravenswood plant to open sometime in 2013. Under the other - a "Future Restart Modification" -- the plant wouldn't open until "sometime in the future when [aluminum] prices materially increase."
In the Immediate Restart Modification, which includes three of the nine points from the Future Restart Modification, as well as five additional conditions, Century admits its risk is on the ratepayers.
Century proposes an annual cost shift capped at $37 million per year -- $185 million over the 10-year contract term -- to ratepayers. The PSC has said any risk that the company won't pay enough for its power would have to be assumed by the company, not other Appalachian Power customers.
However, Century said in its filing that any deficit "would be the responsibility of the other ratepayers."
"The commission said 'We're going to let you lower your rate during low aluminum prices, but we're not going to push that off onto anyone else, that would be Century's responsibility,'" Harris said. "But Century is saying no. They're saying . . . it would be justified in putting other ratepayers at risk of a total of $185 million."
That is "over and above" the $22 million the PSC ordered Appalachian customers to pay when the Ravenswood plant closed in 2009, Harris said, as well as the $20 million a year consumers are paying in higher rates because of fixed costs for Appalachian Power.
Century also expects ratepayers to pay back the $90 million the company says is needed to "invest in restarting the Ravenswood smelter."
"That's not an investment. They're loaning the plant $90 million that the other ratepayers pay back in three years," Harris said. "They call it an investment, but any investment where you've got a rate mechanism that gives you recovery in three years is a short-term loan."
Century wants rates based upon the company's costs, not the cost Appalachian Power incurs to serve it, Harris said.
Century said in its proposal that the PSC order contains a fixed aluminum-rate schedule based on the Ravenswood plant's non-power production costs. However, it "does not provide an opportunity for those rates to be adjusted to reflect significant changes in the non-power production costs and premiums, which might occur over the special-rate term."
Century wants the rate to compensate the company for a decline in aluminum prices and for its cost of production other than electricity, Harris said. That includes maintenance and salaries, he said.
"This is where they get all of their costs of operations guaranteed to them. It's absurd," Harris said. "They want a blank check that any amount of money they spend running their business, we the ratepayers will guarantee [it's paid]," Harris said.
Appalachian Power also filed a petition Friday for clarification and reconsideration of the PSC's Oct. 4 order. Appalachian Power questioned Century's "exposure to the volatile and cyclical aluminum industry."
Appalachian Power said in its filing that, after reviewing Century's financial position, it "discloses legitimate causes for concern.
"It is reasonable to doubt that Century Aluminum Company, whose financial prospects -- and even survival -- depend on the [changes] of the aluminum market, could offset serious losses resulting from those very same [changes]," the utility company said in its filing.
Appalachian Power said a letter of credit is "essential to provide a meaningful guarantee that Century and its parent will have the financial wherewithal to discharge their responsibilities and thus 'assure payment of potential revenue shortfalls.'"
Harris said Appalachian Power thinks Century's parent company is extremely risky, too. In its filing, Appalachian Power noted the parent company's weak bonds and its "riskier general credit outlook.
"They're bringing this to the commission's attention. They don't want just a contract with Century, they want this letter of credit because they're afraid Century won't be able to stand behind the contract and that Century itself will be bankrupt," Harris said.
The PSC's Consumer Advocate Division and the West Virginia Energy Users Group jointly filed a motion for clarification Friday regarding the special electric-rate case.
Among the numerous points made by the CAD and WVEUG, both entities "believe strongly that there should be no reduction in [aluminum] rates until after ratepayers receive a payback of the annual $20 million fixed cost credit."
The Ravenswood plant closed in 2009. Century officials said that, to reopen the plant, the company would need a special rate for electricity based on the changing price of aluminum. The CAD had argued against Century's proposal, saying that other Appalachian Power customers would see an increase in their bills.
"They're just tone deaf with what is realistic," Harris said. "Century is a realistic risk for the state and other customers."
Reach Megan Workman at email@example.com or 304-348-5113.