May 30, 2024

Aluminum is a crucial raw ingredient in the fight against climate change. But to ensure that the transition from fossil fuels is clean, the industry needs a serious makeover. A new federally funded “green smelter” could help make that happen.

Making this remarkably versatile metal requires a large – and almost constant – supply of electricity. Much of it is generated by burning fossil fuels, which is one reason why aluminum manufacturers are responsible for approx 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. It is more than twice the amount that the whole of Australia spews out annually.

Cleaning things up presents a major challenge that the Department of Energy, or DOE, wants to help solve. In March, the agency announced $6 billion in funding for “industrial demonstration” projects that showcase promising strategies to reduce the climate impact of heavy industry. The need is particularly acute because heavy industrial processes such as aluminum production generate almost one third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Beneficiaries of the government’s cleanup effort include Century Aluminum Company, which could receive up to half a billion dollars to build the nation’s first new aluminum smelter in 45 years. The facility, called the Green Aluminum Smelter, could double the amount of pure, or primary, aluminum the country produces while emitting 75 percent less CO2 than older smelters, thanks to increased efficiency and the use of renewable electricity. The award, pending finalisation, is a “big vote of confidence and a shot in the arm” for the industry, it said Annie Sartorthe aluminum campaign director at Industrious Labs, a nonprofit that focuses on industrial decarbonisation.

It can boost a sector on life support. Although the United States once led the world in producing the lightweight and durable metal, most of the country’s aluminum smelters have closed since the 1980s due to rising energy costs, falling prices, and a broader trend of American firms sending manufacturing overseas. Production, which peaked at 4.65 million metric tons per year in 1980, dropped by more than 80 percent since then, according to the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental organizations and labor groups. This puts the US in a difficult position as demand rises: A report released last year by researchers at Dartmouth and Princeton universities found that the country’s wind and solar industries alone could need nearly 8 million metric tons of the material annually by 2035. almost double the amount of primary and recycled aluminum produced by the country in 2022.

And that’s to say nothing of the aluminum required for EVs, power transmission lines and countless other applications, from cookware to mobile phones. Even recycling the stuff requires virgin material, which is mixed into all those melted cans and car parts and other scraps to produce quality metal.

While there is little doubt that the US will need much more aluminum, how it is made is increasingly important. Production begins with the conversion of bauxite, an aluminum-rich ore, into a refined powder called alumina. That material is then melted down to produce the metal. All that mining and processing creates ecological destruction, generates toxic waste, and releases a cocktail of pollution. It can also help warm the planet: Carbon emissions occur throughout the process, but more than 60 percent of them come from generating the electricity used in smelting. A major operation may require enough juice to powering millions of homes.

“We’re talking about really obvious amounts of electricity,” said Rebecca Dell, an industrial decarbonization expert with the nonprofit ClimateWorks Foundation. If the industry hopes to reduce its carbon footprint, “the first, most important thing to do is to use clean electricity.”

Such efforts are underway around the world. Although China, the world’s largest producer of primary aluminumrely on coal-fired power plants to generate much of the electricity needed to hold that title, others prove that clean energy can deliver dramatic reductions in emissions. Smelters in Norway and Quebec, Canadarelease much less greenhouse gases because they use hydropower, while those in Iceland utilize the country’s abundant geothermal resources.

A huge stack of new aluminum bars, each weighing about 1,400 pounds, is stacked on the site of a smelting operation in Kentucky
Aluminum ingots, or bars, each weighing about 1,400 pounds, sit stacked on the grounds of Century Aluminum Company’s plant in Hawesville, Kentucky. Luke Sharrett / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Century Aluminum, a global producer that has been around since 1995, already operates a low-carbon smelter in Iceland capable of turning out more than 300,000 tonnes of aluminum each year. The company hopes the DOE funding will allow it to strengthen its presence in the US, where it operates two smaller smelters in Kentucky and another in South Carolina, while significantly expanding its production of low-carbon aluminum. It did not say exactly how much of the metal its proposed smelter would be able to produce, but based on expectations that it would roughly double the country’s pristine production, Sartor suspects the goal is to produce “just under” a million tonnes. to push of the metal annually. (The USA manufacture 750,000 tons of pure aluminum in 2023.) Neither Century Aluminum nor the DOE said when the smelter might begin operations.

Although many details are uncertain, including the smelter’s production capacity and the construction timetable, one thing is clear: The new plant will be expensive. Sartor said Century Aluminum will need all the money DOE is offering and much more.

“Building a new, large-scale, state-of-the-art aluminum facility is much more than just twice as much,” Sartor said. According to energy consultant Wood Mackenzie, aluminum smelters outside of China could cost up to $4 billion per million tonnes of annual production.

Beyond building the infrastructure needed to produce aluminum lies the question of how to produce the clean electricity needed to power it. According to the DOE, Century Aluminum’s preferred site is in Kentucky, a state with deficient clean energy credentials. In 2020, the Bluegrass State had a dismal 30.1 megawatts of solar power generation capacity and no wind energy production whatever. Sartor says she expects a plant of this size to require “somewhere in the neighborhood of a gigawatt” of power. That’s enough to serve 800,000 American homes for a year. “The only way that will happen is if gigantic amounts of clean energy are built in Kentucky,” Sartor said. “There is no other way to do it.”

A representative for Century Aluminum told Grist the company is “excited to move this transformational project forward,” but declined to answer other questions or say how it plans to secure the carbon-free energy needed. The DOE declined to comment on the challenges that may arise in obtaining clean energy, citing ongoing grant negotiations.

That said, the site has not been finalized, and locations within the Ohio and Mississippi River basins is also understood to be under consideration. Dell believes this brings an interesting political dimension to the project because Century Aluminum expects the smelter to create more than 1,000 full-time union jobs and another 5,500 construction jobs.

“It’s a very attractive economic development opportunity for a state like Kentucky — or maybe for its neighbors,” Dell said. Century Aluminum, Dell said, is effectively putting Kentucky and nearby states — many of which haven’t exactly embraced renewable energy — on notice that “there’s a huge opportunity on the table if you can figure out a way to to develop the electricity that is needed”.

If Century Aluminum succeeds in finding the clean energy it needs, it could help catalyze changes in other industrial sectors such as steelmaking. Dell notes that in most of the “high value-added markets” for steel, such as the automotive sector, the primary competition is aluminum.

“Both of these industries are constantly trying to convince the auto companies, ‘use our metal, not their metal,'” Dell said. “Having more clean aluminum out there will certainly act as an incentive for the steel industry to clean up their act.”

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