Meridian unlikely to reach agreement with smelter

March 28, 2013

Meridian has announced it’s unlikely to reach an agreement with Pacific Aluminium over supply of electricity to its Bluff smelter.

. . . Chief Executive of Meridian Energy, Mark Binns, says that Meridian has advised Pacific Aluminium of its ‘bottom line’ position.

“Despite significant effort by both parties there remains a major gap between us on a number of issues, such that we believe that it is unlikely a new agreement can be reached with Pacific Aluminium,” says Mr Binns.

In the event no agreement can be reached, Meridian will seek to engage with Rio Tinto and Sumitomo Chemical Company Ltd, the shareholders of NZAS, who will ultimately decide on the future of the smelter. . . 

The smelter is a big employer in Southland but falling global prices for aluminium have put pressure on its operation.

This announcement also has implications for power prices. Without the smelter supply could well be greater than demand.

. . . news that there may be no new electricity price agreement with New Zealand Aluminium Smelters carries huge implications for the electricity sector, which has struggled to grow in the last five years and would face a massive supply over-hang which could last years, were the smelter to close.

However, that outcome is not yet certain.

The smelter’s majority owners, Anglo-Australian minerals giant Rio Tinto, are locked into the first three years of an new 18 year contract, which took effect from Jan 1, took three years to negotiate, and had been agreed in 2007.

While the New Zealand smelter makes internationally recognised high grade metal, which sells at a premium, Rio has been hit hard by its exposure to the aluminium sector, where world prices have been hit hard since the global financial crisis.

Rio Tinto is seeking to sell the smelter, along with a clutch of other, older smelters in Australasia, which it has packaged as a new subsidiary, Pacific Aluminium. . . .

If my recollection is correct the smelter was wooed to New Zealand by the price of cheap electricity.

This is an example of the dangers of such policy. It was designed with the good intentions of job creation but has skewed the electricity market.

State Services Minister Tony Ryall says all relevant information – including about the smelter electricity contract – will be reflected in the Mighty River Power offer document which is currently being finalised.


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