Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for the ‘Aluminium plants in Iceland’ Category

Are Iceland’s aluminium smelters in trouble?

Aluminium companies in Iceland have not been doing too well recently. The original smelter just outside the capital at Straumsvik, which was opened 50 years ago and is now owned by multinational Rio Tinto but is up for sale, had an “incident” 10 days ago when an arc flash formed within one of its pots. Luckily, it happened at a time when no one was present in the room, as otherwise it could have been fatal.

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For safety reasons, all of the 160 pots in that pot room have been switched off – this represents about a third of the smelter’s production and represents a serious dent in the company’s operations. Last year, the company made a loss of about $US 41.3 million, so this setback doesn’t help – and won’t make the smelter easier to sell either.

Don’t bother looking for information about the incident on the company’s Facebook page or their website, as it isn’t there!

What has sparked my curiosity is that both the CEO of  East Iceland Fjardaal aluminium smelter, Magnus Thor Guðmundsson, and the Icelandic Senior Vice-President of Alcoa globally, Tomas Mar Sigurdsson, have announced their resignations very recently. Tomas Mar started off at the Icelandic plant before becoming involved with Alcoa Europe. He only became Senior Vice-President in November last year – not long ago.

Magnus Thor has been in various positions of responsibility within the East Iceland plant.

So is it coincidence that both decided to leave at a similar time? Well, the mother company’s finances have not been good. In the first quarter of 2019, Alcoa corporation announced a loss of $US 199 million while the second quarter loss was $US 402 million. So possibly they sensed that something was coming.

Alcoa, however, always add a paragraph about “forward-looking statements” to their annual reports, which presumably prevents them from being sued. This term seems to be American in origin but I suspect can be used in a variety of industries. Check out this explanation that they give:

Forward-looking statements include those containing such words as “anticipates,” “believes,” “could,” “estimates,” “expects,” “forecasts,” “goal,” “intends,” “may,” “outlook,” “plans,” “projects,” “seeks,” “sees,” “should,” “targets,” “will,” “would,” or other words of similar meaning.

This concept is interesting in itself and can surely be applied to many companies who want to be somewhat ambiguous in their intentions.

The third aluminium company, Nordural, is owned by Century Aluminium and located at Grundartangi in West Iceland. Unlike the other smelters, this plant was operated with a profit of just over $US 94 million, though profits were down on the previous year by nearly $US 25 million.

Heavy industry in Iceland accounts for 82-83% all electricity produced. The Fjardaal smelter is the biggest user, and is responsible for 34% of the country’s electricity usage (and pays the lowest cost for it of all three smelters). Rio Tinto is responsible for 23% of electricity used and the Nordural plant uses 12%. Other heavy industry accounts for the rest.

 

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Heavy industry in Iceland looks to CarbFix to become carbon-neutral

Iceland’s four largest CO2 emitters, three of which are aluminium smelters and the other a ferro-silicon plant, have signed a Letter of Intent with the Icelandic government to look for ways to become carbon neutral by 2040. The PCC silicon metal smelter at Bakki, which is another large emitter, is also expected to sign – “although our first priority is to get the operation running properly,” according to the environmental officer there.

The aim is to thoroughly investigate whether the CarbFix method for storing CO2 can become a viable option, both technically and financially, for storing CO2 emissions from these companies.

CarbFix was set up originally in 2007 in conjunction with the Hellisheidi geothermal power station, where CO2 is captured from steam and dissolved in water at pressure. The water is then injected into underground basalt rock at a depth of 500-800 m, where it forms carbonate minerals such as calcite within a few years. These carbonate minerals are stable on a geological time-scale.

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Annual capacity at the Hellisheidi plant is around 12,000 tonnes CO2, which accounts for about a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions. The Hellisheidi plant also removes hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from the steam, but this will not be an issue with the companies intending to become carbon-neutral by 2040.

In 2017, a pilot-scale Direct Air Capture unit was added to the system: this process is independent of location as it mostly relies on energy in the form of heat, which is available as a by-product in numerous industrial processes. Unfortunately the technique is currently too expensive to be used  for making heavy industry climate-neutral.

The project with heavy industry, which is expected to span five to ten years, will involve analysing the concentration of CO2 in emissions, so that similar removal techniques can be applied to those at Hellisheidi. The next step will involve design and manufacture of experimental equipment for capturing and injecting CO2, followed by design and manufacture of similar equipment on a larger scale.

The standard method of carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves pumping oil into old gas fields or using some form of carbon capture and usage (CCU). Edda Sif Aradóttir, who is project manager of CarbFix, says there are both advantages and disadvantages to traditional methods.

“The CarbFix method transforms CO2 into minerals within two years through a chemical process that happens naturally in nature, while traditional methods store CO2 in gas or liquid form. The procedure is thus of a completely different nature and CO2 is permanently removed,” she says.

She says that the main disadvantage is that it requires a considerable amount of water to dissolve the CO2 where chemical changes occur between water and rock. “On the other hand, the water needed by the procedure may be reused, which we in fact do up at Hellisheidi … we are working at developing the process even more so that seawater can be used,” she explained.

Funding for the CarbFix2 project has come from various programmes within the EU, including Horizon 2020, with collaborators in Toulouse, Barcelona and Zurich. CarbFix2 is designed to move the project on from a demonstration phase to one which will lead to an economically viable, complete CCS chain that can be used within Europe and globally.

Future research involves exporting the method to new injection sites in Germany, Italy and Turkey as well as Iceland, and further developing the method so it can be used offshore for permanent mineral storage of CO2 on the sub-sea floor. CarbFix proponents say that there is far more storage available in porous sub-marine basalts than required for the geologic storage of all the anthropogenic CO2 that will ever be produced.

I also wrote about this for ENDS Europe Daily today.

 

High fluoride levels recorded again near Alcoa aluminium smelter in East Iceland

Routine measurements of fluoride in grass near Alcoa’s Fjardaal aluminium smelter in East Iceland have shown higher than permissible levels for June.

In East and Northeast Iceland, the summer of 2018 has been unusually warm and still, which causes thermal inversions in the fjord, Reydarfjordur, where the smelter is located. The thermal inversions can cause higher fluoride levels.

A 2013 report (in Icelandic) by the East Iceland Nature Research Centre (EINRC) and Innovation Centre Iceland mention thermal inversions and their effect on pollutants. The increase in concentration of pollutants is rapid and substantial when little or no vertical air mixing occurs. The lower the height of the inversion, the more rapid and greater is the concentration of pollutants. They say that the likelihood of thermal inversions is considerable. Also: “The effect of these conditions is probably greater than any other single factor in the measurement of pollutants in Reydarfjordur and affects all parameters as well as sulphur dioxide, such as air-borne particulates and fluorine/fluorides in the air, precipitation and vegetation. Special attention should be paid to the effects in the locality of the smelter.”

Alcoa say that it is important not to read too much into individual results as they can vary considerably for various reasons, including weather conditions. Measurements are taken twice a month by EINRC during the summer months of June, July and August. The average for June 2018 was 46.1 µg F/g, whereas the reference limit for sheep is 40 µg F/g – for horses, the level is much higher, Alcoa say. They say that sheep should not be affected unless they feed for a long time on grass or hay over the reference limits, based on consumption over a year.

However, “Fluoride is a cumulative poison, meaning that animals and plants often register higher levels of the element as they age,” I wrote in an article in Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution and farm animals. Levels of fluoride 12 times more than the reference limit were found in 2016 in the bones of lambs owned by Sigurdur Baldursson, a farmer I talked to for the Al Jazeera article. No doubt they will increase even more this year. He says that although he’s not concerned about the health of his animals because they are closely monitored, there are no Icelandic guidelines for fluoride in sheep bones.

Apparently hay samples did not show increased fluoride levels when samples were taken after the accidental release of fluorine from the plant in 2012, so maybe hay won’t be a problem this year either. However, it’s quite possible that fluoride levels in grass will be higher in July, too, due to the good weather in East Iceland, not to mention May which was also warm and sunny there but when recordings are not made.

We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Environmental damage in Iceland minimized

The minke whale hunting season for the year has finished, with a final total of 17 whales. That’s their worst catch ever, and they clearly haven’t caught any since the end of July as I updated Minke whaling gets off to a shaky start on August 1 with the news that only 17 whales had been caught this year. They had been hoping to at least equal last year’s catch of 46 whales, and preferably to exceed it.

The main person behind minke whaling, Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, says that they will “most probably” go out whale killing next year, though the hunting season will be shorter, only two to three months. I can’t see how it’s economical for him to employ people for the season and catch so few. Maybe next year there will be no whaling in Iceland and most of the rest of the world will rejoice, as fin whales have now not been hunted for the last two seasons due to bureaucracy in Japan, not to mention stores of unsold meat.

Another piece of good news is that Silicor Materials has told Icelandic port officials that it no longer intends to build the solar silicon plant in Grundartangi, which had been highly controversial and I had already predicted would not be built. They had had funding problems, amongst other things. The decision will please many people.

The United Silicon plant will remain closed for the next few months – if it ever reopens at all.

Iceland’s oldest aluminium smelter, currently owned by Rio Tinto Alcan and located just outside the Greater Capital Area, is up for sale. Apparently some entities have shown interest – my inkling is that Century Aluminium might be interested, as their proposed aluminium smelter close to the United Silicon smelter has never been completed. But Rio Tinto say that if they can’t find a suitable buyer, they’ll keep the plant.

The other big news, of course, is the fall of the Icelandic government and the election which will now take place on October 28. Apart from the stated reason for the election, which centred around the father of our current Prime Minister signing a letter of support for the clemency of a sex offender, it’s obvious that Bright Future and Vidreisn (Reform) had always been dissatisfied to some extent with working with the Independent Party in the Coalition, both in terms of working procedures and having to water down their politics. Everyone knew the situation was delicate from the start.

Fun and games.

 

Fluoride poisoning in horses confirmed

I wrote an article almost two years ago for Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution from accidents at aluminium plants in West and East Iceland and their effects on horses and sheep respectively. The horse owner, Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir, had been saying for almost 10 years that her horses were affected by the nearby Century aluminium plant but her concerns were dismissed by the smelter officials as well as by the Food and Veterinary Authority staff.
Nevertheless, a specialist group was set up to investigate the matter by the Ministry of the Interior of the previous Icelandic government and they have just come to the conclusion that fluoride pollution was probably to blame for the horses’ health problems. Seventeen horses have had to be destroyed because of health problems stemming from the pollution.
However, Century officials and the FVA still stand by their previous convictions and say that fluoride is not to blame.
Hmm… I think they won’t change their beliefs, no matter what the evidence.

One of the affected horses

One of the affected horses

Aluminium smelters, energy and the Eden project

Last week, Iceland’s national power company, Landsvirkjun, announced that they had successfully negotiated a new electricity price for 161 MW of electricity for the expansion at the Nordural (Century Aluminium) smelter at Grundartangi. The price will be valid from 2019 for four years and, for the first time ever, will be linked to the market price for electricity in the Nord Pool electricity market instead of being linked to the world price of aluminium, which is extremely low at the moment. This is a breakthrough, as up till now the aluminium companies have negotiated very low prices for contracts lasting much longer than four years – Landsvirkjun sells 37.5% of its energy to the Alcoa Fjardaal smelter in East Iceland, which came on line 10 years ago, and that contract doesn’t run out until 2048.

The Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Straumsvik, which reported a loss for the last financial year, also has a contract for cheap energy for a long time.

Meanwhile, out at Helguvik on the southwest tip of Iceland, what is supposed to be Nordural’s second aluminium plant remains half-built.

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The Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Straumsvik

How about a competition: What can be done with a half-built aluminium smelter? I think that something along the lines of the Eden Project in Cornwall would be brilliant. It’s logo sums up the situation: Transformation: it’s in our nature.

 

 

Large industry no lifesaver for local communities

When the debate about building Karahnjukar dam and the corresponding aluminium plant in East Iceland were at their highest, one of the arguments used was that it would provide employment in the area and people would no longer move away from the area in search of jobs. But that hasn’t come to pass – once again, although there has been a 1% increase in population in Iceland as a whole, three areas have seen a decrease over the past year, and one of them is East Iceland – home to the Fjardaraal aluminium smelter, owned by Century.

Of course, the construction of the dam and smelter led to more people living in the area, but a goodly proportion of these were brought in from other countries. And accommodation had to be provided. Houses and apartment blocks were hastily constructed in local towns such as Egilsstadir, but residents of the new buildings have complained about mould problems in the buildings which have led to health problems. And I seem to remember that many buildings are empty there.

Increased employment was also one of the arguments given by proponents in favour of an aluminium smelter in Northwest Iceland. But if the Fjardaraal smelter hasn’t encouraged people to stay in the area, wouldn’t the same be true of a plant in the northwest?

Increased employment was also given as an argument for building the Helguvik aluminium plant in the southwest. That plant was meant to be completed in 2010 but nothing has happened recently and it remains only partly built. At the time the plant was started, the area had high unemployment because the US military had just left the area. But now the area boasts the highest population increase in Iceland, and the airport authorities say they will need to bring people in from outside Iceland to work at the airport (to cope with Iceland’s growing number of tourists) as the local area won’t be able to supply them. The prosperity there has nothing to do with aluminium plants or silicon plants that are also planned for Helguvik.

Meanwhile, close to Reykjavik, the management and owners of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium smelter at Straumsvik have been in pay negotiations with the workforce there for over a year. One gets the impression that the Icelanders working there are seen as pawns by Rio Tinto and are not taken seriously.