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UPDATE: Meridian, power company stocks rise on smelter deal

UPDATE: Meridian, power company stocks up as smelter remains open

(Recasts to focus on market reaction)

By Pattrick Smellie

Aug. 3 (BusinessDesk) - Electricity company shares rose on news that the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter will remain open and run at full capacity at least until the end of 2017, even though Meridian Energy remains the sole supplier after other power companies proved unwilling to make more than token gestures to provide supply.

Meridian shares led the charge, rising 6.4 percent to $2.395 on the NZX, with Contact Energy up 3 percent to $5.10, Genesis Energy up 3.5 percent at $1.77, MightyRiverPower up 3.3 percent to $2.85 and Infratil-controlled TrustPower up 2.2 percent to $8.

Meridian's chief executive Mark Binns told BusinessDesk a new price for about 30 percent of the aluminium smelter's electricity is "a hell of a lot better than the old price" it was receiving under the contract renegotiated in 2013, although it remains below market rates.

In an interview after announcing that Meridian would continue to supply New Zealand Aluminium Smelters for the full 572 Megawatts required to run the smelter at full capacity, Binns said Meridian was "getting short of, but closer to market pricing for that volume" as a result of intensive negotiations that saw a July 1 deadline for a restated contract extended to this morning.

Two key issues were at play: who would supply 172MW of the 572MW total smelter load into the future, since Meridian had the option to reprice that portion of the contract at this stage; and whether or not NZAS's majority owner, Rio Tinto, would choose to close the ageing smelter at Bluff, which employs some 800 people, accounts for around 10 percent of the Southland economy, and uses one-seventh of all the electricity generated in New Zealand.

Closure would result in an electricity glut at a time of low demand growth and would almost certainly prompt some high cost, thermal plant to close down.

Much of the improved outcome for Meridian is achieved through financial hedge contracts with other power companies, including up to 80MW from Contact Energy under a four to 14 year deal, and a two year 50MW contract with Genesis Energy. Several smaller contracts had been signed with other power generators, said Binns, taking cover close to the 172MW that Meridian had tried to lay off elsewhere.

While Genesis had been widely tipped as likely to want to help keep the smelter open, its relatively small commitment suggests its chief executive, Albert Brantley, is willing to risk the smelter closing rather than bowing to pressure for very low prices compared to those paid by other industrial users. Industrial users can expect to pay around $70 to $75 per MW hour for bulk electricity, compared with around $45 per MWh under the smelter contract prior to today's updated terms.

The 50MW commitment represented "a positive outcome for all parties while maintaining our own flexibility," said Brantley in a statement.

The refreshed contract still runs to 2030, with Rio Tinto having an annual option to close or partially close the facility. The earliest it can make a decision to close is Jan 1, 2017, with the earliest possible closure date now Jan 1, 2018. It also gains a right to reduce its electricity demand to 400MW from April 30 2017, with one year's notice.

The new contracts were a "blend" of the old price for 400MW of supply and 172MW at a higher price, said Binns. The contract price also remains linked to the international price of aluminium and the New Zealand dollar exchange rate.

The smelter's production costs were estimated two years ago to be around US$1,700 per tonne. London Metal Exchange prices are currently at little under US$1,600 per tonne.

Binns said the smelter is thought to be operating at about break-even on current prices, following a sharp fall in the kiwi dollar against the US dollar over the last year.

Rio Tinto hopes to sell the smelter along with a clutch other ageing aluminium production assets in Australia, packaged together as Pacific Aluminium, although it has failed to find a buyer after more than two years on the market. It is also thought to be reluctant to face the estimated $400 million cost of site remediation, were it to walk away from the smelter site, near Bluff, which has operated for more than 40 years.

However, NZAS chief executive Gretta Stephens said while today's agreement "crossed a hurdle" that gave "more certainty about our immediate future,” it gave no assurance about the smelter in the long term.

“The agreement provides short-term security for the smelter and allows time for market fundamentals to improve,” she said. "Our combined electricity and transmission prices are still not internationally competitive."

Both Meridian and NZAS are convinced they pay too much for transmission services from the national grid and are pinning their hopes on a substantial reduction in costs under proposals published recently by the Electricity Authority, which would share transmission costs more evenly across the country.

"All I would say is that NZAS are us are in the same boat on this one," said Binns. "We would be very disappointed if the EA did not go with user pays. Our expectation is that they will do the right thing."

Reform of transmission pricing had "never been more important" to the smelter than it is now, said NZAS's Stephens. "Last year alone, the smelter paid $64 million worth of transmission costs."

Under the most radical of the EA's proposals, that could drop to $10 million a year, although the proposal has caused political heat as the slack would be taken up in Auckland and in remote regional areas such as Northland and the South Island West Coast.

The smelter's owners renegotiated the smelter's electricity contracts in 2013, using the fact the government wanted to sell 49 percent of its three state-owned power companies as a bargaining chip to overturn a 30 year contract signed in 2007, prior to the global financial crisis and a collapse in metal prices.


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