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Electricity sources and electric vehicles

A meta-analysis was recently published in the journal Sustainability on the emissions involved in producing battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and the number of kilometres it takes for a BEV to break even with fossil-fuel vehicles (diesel and petrol) in different European countries. Existing studies were reviewed in order to perform the analysis.

The difference is astounding. The key is the source(s) of electricity used in each country for making the batteries.

Although BEVs are simpler in structure and require less maintenance than fossil-fuel vehicles, they have slightly higher emissions than petrol and diesel vehicles in the manufacturing process. The scientists in this study performed life-cycle assessments of the production cycle and estimated the distances of intersection points (DIPs, measured in thousands of km) before a BEV breaks even with fossil fuel cars.

They discovered that BEVs had to be driven for 34,000 km in Iceland before they became more carbon-friendly than diesel cars, but in the UK they had to be driven for 244,000 km before they break even with diesel cars in terms of emissions. Together with Cyprus and Greece (309,000 and 312,700 km respectively), the cars would probably have reached the end of their lifetime before the break-even point is reached. It is assumed that a car’s lifetime is around 183,894 km, as in all the studies they reviewed this was the average distance driven over a vehicle’s physical lifetime.

In some countries (Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Malta) the situation is so bad that “BEVs would never intersect with the compared diesel vehicle at the current electric grid emission intensity due to the use-phase emissions of the BEV being higher than those of the diesel vehicle”. The authors attribute this to the energy mix in the country concerned: for instance, in Poland 80% of the electricity comes from coal. Besides Iceland, the other countries which come well out in this analysis are Norway, France and Sweden.

For petrol cars, the DIP is lower. Iceland still comes best out, with a DIP of 18.9. The figures are lower for all countries, with the same countries coming worst out.

For those who can read Icelandic, Fréttablaðið also reported on this, but to a lesser degree.

It would be interesting to see the same analysis done for hydrogen-fuelled cars and vehicles using methane as fuel. But especially in regard to hydrogen.

CarbFix becomes a competitive option for CO2 mineralization in Icelandic basalt

In my first article for Energy Monitor, I describe the potential and economics of using the CarbFix procedure for capturing CO2 at point sources, dissolving it in water and injecting it into Icelandic’s porous basalt bedrock where the divalent metal cations of magnesium, iron and calcium in the bedrock react with the dissolved CO2 to form mineral carbonates and fill up pores in the bedrock. These minerals are stable for thousands of years.

In economic terms, the process is on a par with buying carbon credits: the net cost of capturing, dissolving and re-injecting CO2 in Hellisheidi using the CarbFix technology is about $US 25 [€21] per tonne, whereas emission credits cost around $29.5 (€25) per tonne – and are likely to increase in price as time goes on.

In collaboration with Swiss company Climeworks, CarbFix is also going to scale up its Direct Air Capture (DAC) prototype on Hellisheidi, from 40 tonnes per year to 4000 tonnes per year. This will make it the largest DAC project that will capture CO2 for geological storage. But it comes at a price – Climeworks say that their DAC projects in other countries cost $US 600-800 (€507-676). Undoubtedly the price will come down in due course, but at the moment it is unlikely to be important until later this century. Still, it has huge potential, as DAC plants can be set up anywhere.

Iceland will need to buy carbon credits next year for its heavy industry, according to the Environment Agency. But the heavy industries are also looking into the feasibility of using CarbFix for their emissions, so perhaps carbon credits will not be necessary.

Note that the Energy Monitor article was shortened considerably. For instance, this came out:

“Because geothermal plants such as Hellisheidi typically emit the irritant gas hydrogen sulphide (H2S) at the same time as CO2 and the CarbFix system allows other gases to be captured concurrently with CO2, both gases are captured and injected underground at the Hellisheidi plant.”

And here is more that came out:

Iceland (pop. 368,000) gets all of its electricity from renewable sources: geothermal, hydroelectric and wind. Of these, only geothermal power emits CO2, and its emissions are negligible when compared to electricity produced by fossil fuels. About 80% of Iceland’s electricity is used by heavy industry and last week the Environment Agency announced that Iceland would have to buy carbon credits next year, at the end of the Kyoto agreement.

The Environment Agency says that CO2 emissions from ferroalloys and aluminium smelters amounted to 1705.87 ktCO2 in 2019 while preliminary data from the Agency shows that total CO2 emissions for 2019 were 3618.13 ktCO2, excluding LULUCF, international aviation and navigation. Speaking unofficially, as the figures have not been announced publicly, Nicole Keller from the Agency says: “We have calculated that Iceland will need to buy approx. 4000 ktCO2 worth of credits. We do not have any figures for the cost associated with it, though. This is being looked at by a working group under the ministries.”

And more:

The CarbFix team say that they have been operating at an industrial level since 2014 and capture about 33.4 tonnes of CO2 a day or 12,000 tonnes annually.

The CarbFix website shows running totals of the CO2 injected, both on a daily basis and since the project was started on an industrial scale in 2014. By 16 November, over 71,750 tonnes had been injected during the last six years.

On a global scale, the total number of CCS facilities in various stages of development is now 59, with an annual capture capacity of more than 131 million tonnes. Of these, 21 facilities are currently in operation, 3 under construction, and 35 in various stages of development. Two of the large-scale facilities are connected to power plants, Petra Nova Carbon Capture in the USA (whose CCS operations have currently been suspended due to COVID) and Boundary Dam CCS in Canada (capacity 1 Mtpa), with the remainder 19 being in industrial applications. The CarbFix plant is not regarded as a large-scale facility because its capacity is small in global terms.

On a global scale, Iceland could theoretically accommodate over 400 GtCO2 in its active rift zone – far more than Iceland would ever be able to use. And for that matter, far more than the 107 GtCO2 that the International Energy Agency predicts will be in storage in 2060.

Half-built, abandoned aluminium smelter potentially to be used for fish farming

Way back in 2008, Century Aluminium decided to construct an aluminium plant capable of producing 250,000 tonnes of aluminium annually (although they said that 360,000 would be more cost-effective) in Helguvik, southwest Iceland. The smelter was supposed to start operation in 2010. But it encountered numerous problems, primarily concerned with energy, and basically gave up on the project in 2016 after arbitration invalidated Century’s agreement with energy company HS Orka.

Century kept the site, though, with its half-built smelter buildings which are said to have cost $US 150 million.

Now, however, Century have signed a Declaration of Intent with Samherji, who want to use the premises for fish farming. Samherji is Iceland’s biggest fishery company, which has also been under scrutiny because of alleged bribery with Namibian politicians and state officials over fishing quotas, a case that has become known as the Fishrot Files.

Fishrot Files aside, Samherji also have fish-farming operations in other locations not far from Helguvik.

If Samherji eventually buy the half-built smelter, Century will still lose out as the price paid is likely to be nowhere near the costs incurred during smelter construction.

If Samherji decide not to go ahead, another option put forward is hemp farming, which I suspect will be more popular with Icelanders than Samherji is likely to be.

Russians to retrieve “ticking time bombs” from the Arctic Ocean

Between 1959 and late 1992, around 18,000 radioactive objects of various types and sizes, including nuclear submarines, were intentionally dumped on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean by the Russians. According to the Russian nuclear agency ROSATOM, by far the majority of these now pose no danger as they have been covered by silt and the like and the level of gamma rays is similar to that of their natural surroundings, but they have decided to remove the six objects that represent 90% of the radioactive sources dumped at sea.

The objects in question are two nuclear submarines, K-27 and K-159; three nuclear reactors that powered nuclear submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140; and spent nuclear fuel from the ice-breaker Lenin.

K-27 lies on the bottom of the Kara Sea and was deliberately sunk by the Russian authorities, contrary to international regulations on the disposal of nuclear waste, while K-159 sank in the Barents Sea, off the coast of the Kola Peninsula, when being towed to Murmansk in Russia for disposal in 2003. The latter made headlines as nine people were on board and died soon afterwards from radiation poisoning.

The reactor of submarine K-27 was sealed with the chemical furfural before it was sunk, but experts say this is now eroding. Around 800 kg of spent nuclear fuel remained in the reactor powering K-159. Experts say that in both cases, a nuclear chain reaction could occur if water enters the submarines’ reactor rooms. Radioactive caesium-137 and strontium-90 could be released among other radioactive isotopes, according to a specialist from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute

In addition, a total of 19 nuclear-powered Russian boats of various sorts lie on the ocean floor along with 14 nuclear reactors. And after the fall of the former USSR, the West assisted Russia with taking apart 197 nuclear-powered vessels, many of which lay rusting and leaking radioactivity on the sea bed.

Norway has been particularly perturbed by the situation because of the rich fishing grounds in the Barents Sea, which they utilize. They have thus been helping the Russians with radiation measurements, as even a small leak of radiation could cause havoc to their fishing industry. Today, 20 countries still don’t buy fish or seafood from Japan because of the Fukushima accident (which I covered to some extent in the updated edition of Wildlife and the Atom).

There is a lot more to this story than what I’ve written, as there are dangers when raising submarines and the Russians are still building nuclear-powered submarines. BBC Future has a long, detailed article about this matter that is well worth a read.


Silicon metal blogs noticed by the industry

I’m flattered. Over the last three years I’ve written many blog posts on the silicon metal industry in Iceland, especially in relation to the now-closed-down-and-looking-for-buyer smelter at Helguvik, southwest Iceland, which was formerly owned by United Silicon, and more recently the smelter in the north of Iceland at Bakki, near Husavik, which was/is owned and operated by PCC Bakki.

I’ve been aware that I haven’t blogged for a while, which normally means that few will read my blog posts. But there has been a massive increase over the last six days (not including the weekend when readers were zilch) of people reading two out of my last three posts, especially the one called Silicon metal smelters in Iceland – past, present and future, which was written in early June, but also PCC Bakki silicon metal smelter to close, which was written on June 29.

Initially, most of the readers were Polish, and the CEO at PCC Consumer Products in Poland also viewed my LinkedIn profile that day. But now most of the readers are from Germany, where the mother company is based. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It’s nice to be noticed by the business.

Previously, most of the people who were following my silicon metal blogs were Americans protesting about the construction of a silicon metal smelter in their locality.

Meanwhile, more news.

News on the mother company’s news website, dated July 31, states that the second furnace was switched off on July 26 and that “rehabilitation of the roof construction of the plant’s filter house by the plant constructor” will be carried out. But the news item also says:

At the same time, the qualification of our goods is to be promoted among additional potential customers and, with the support of PCC SE, commercial improvements are to be negotiated on both the purchasing and the sales side. All these measures should help to sustainably strengthen the earnings situation of PCC BakkiSilicon hf. after restarting the plant.

The plant is expected to restart as soon as possible but this will depend to a large extent on how the silicon metal market develops, which has plummeted because of the covid 19 restrictions and the associated global economic slowdown. In the meantime, at least in China, there is a slight recovery in silicon metal prices. The sustainability of this upward trend remains to be seen in the coming weeks.

Note the term “plummeted”. PCC in Iceland said they hoped to start up the smelter operation again within 6-9 months of its shutdown. But since then COVID has re-emerged in force  (though in some countries it never died down), and is expected to remain with us for some time. I doubt that the coronavirus will have disappeared by next spring. The longer PCC Bakki have to wait before restarting – if they ever do, which is not a given – the harder it will be. They hope to hire again the employees they laid off, but I can’t see much chance of that happening. From the point of view of the employees, it’s too uncertain.

Meanwhile, in Helguvik renovations have been done on the former silicon metal plant in the hope that it will make the smelter more sellable. But as silicon metal prices have “plummeted” due to lack of demand, it’s not at all likely that the smelter will ever be sold. Added to which, the local council are against it and the Environment Agency, which closed down the plant in September 2017, have outlined numerous points (in Icelandic) that need to be remedied – and even then they don’t seem convinced that problems will not crop up.

PCC Bakki silicon metal smelter to close


On Thursday last week, PCC Bakki sent out a press release saying that they would be shutting down the smelter at the end of July. The closure is supposed to be temporary, as they hope to restart after 6-9 months. But whether it will restart is another question.

PCC blame COVID-19 and lack of demand due to it. The Icelandic press, however, have been quick to point out that PCC has suffered economic and technical problems for a long time and have intimated that COVID may just be a pretext. Note that no news of this has appeared on PCC’s international site, nor their Icelandic site, nor their Icelandic Facebook page. Nor has it appeared on any of the English-language news sites in Iceland that I have checked.

Around 80 of 130 workers will be laid off, with more leaving after some modifications have been made to the plant. PCC’s idea is to rehire its current employees when it restarts again. The local council says that efforts will be made to find alternative work for those with families, who have become settled in the nearest town to the plant, Húsavík, but that people living in accommodation on site are likely to be more mobile and will move elsewhere to look for work. An unnamed shop steward said that PCC employees had sensed for some time that the plant would close.

Personally, I can’t see any of the workers deciding to stay in the area on the basis that it might/will reopen at some stage.

Rún­ar Sig­urpáls­son, CEO of PCC Bakki, is realistic and told an Icelandic newspaper that “he hoped he would be able to reclaim his staff. It’s no more complex than that … Whether it will be 6 months or 12 months I can’t say”. But he says that the global demand for silicon metal is low at the moment and the price is low. And the COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over, and it’s impossible to predict when it will end. He then said that for the company to restart, the price for silicon metal would have to rise significantly.

PCC have to keep paying Landsvirkun, their energy provider, as they have a take-or-pay energy agreement. Generally, the buyer has to keep paying energy costs, or at least 80% of the negotiated energy. When no income is being generated, this will be yet another setback that the company will have to face.

One of the arguments put forth for constructing smelters in Iceland has been that it will provide employment, meaning employment for the local community. But this doesn’t happen. Building is usually done by foreign workers as locals don’t want to do it, and it turns out that 30 of the 40 families that have been affected by PCC’s imminent closure are foreign, as are the 40 workers living in purpose-built site accommodation.

Meanwhile, comments on the new EIA for the former silicon metal plant in Helguvík have just closed. Stakksberg, a company set up by Arion bank to see to the sale of the plant that was shut down in September 2017 by the Environment Agency, has been trying to sell the plant for the last three years and I suspect that they hope that if a new EIA is approved, it will help the sale. The locals are against it re-opening, and the local council was also very critical of the EIA, especially in hindsight of its earlier experience with the Helguvík smelter. In my comment to the Planning Agency about the EIA for the Helguvík smelter, I asked whether notice had been taken of the problems suffered by the PCC smelter – and that was a few days before PCC announced they were closing.

I suspect that neither smelter will be operating a year from now.

Update, 2 July: PCC have another glitch to face. About 25% of the silicon metal produced by PCC goes to the USA and is used by the car industry. Not only is the car industry now selling far few cars because of lockdown, travel  restrictions and the like, but American silicon metal manufacturers Ferroglobe and Missisippi Silicon are now pressurizing the American government to impose a tax on silicon metal from Iceland, Bosnia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan because these countries hamper normal pricing and healthy competition.

Iceland’s CarbFix CCS scheme hopes to reduce carbon emissions from large-scale industry

I’ve just had an article published in BBC Future about how the CarbFix version of CCS (carbon capture and storage) can potentially be used to reduce CO2 emissions from large-scale industry, which in Iceland’s case consists of three aluminium smelters, a silicon metal smelter and a ferro-silicon plant.

The CarbFix method is adapted for Iceland’s porous, permeable basalt rock. Instead of taking thousands of years for mineralization to take place underground, with CarbFix it only takes 1-2 years. The procedure has been used to capture both CO2 and hydrogen sulphide from the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, where CarbFix is in operation, but potentially it could be used for other gases. Read the article to find out more!

A great deal of emphasis in CCS has been put on Direct Air Capture, which is also discussed in the article. Part of the reason for the expense is the need to capture and fix small concentrations of target gases, which is more challenging. A small DAC system is now in operation at Hellisheidi.

Using funds from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, the four-year Geothermal Emission Control (GECO) project is investigating the use of CarbFix in Germany, Italy and Turkey near geothermal fields as well as Iceland. As the bedrock in these countries is not basalt, the initial groundwork involves carrying out background studies of potential injection sites, such as the potential of different rock types to mineralize CO2 and permeability. Injection is due to start in 2021.

Emissions from Iceland’s power plants are minimal compared to those in other countries. Nevertheless, Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company that operates three geothermal power stations, is going to build a gas capture plant at one of its geothermal plants, Krafla, using CarbFix to capture the CO2 that is emitted, and in so doing intends to work towards becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

Because BBC attracts a global audience, my editor wanted me to include information on the processes involved in  conventional CCS as well, which I did. Currently, there are 2 large-scale power plants with CCS in operation, but the number of large-scale CCS facilities globally number 21: 2 of these are in power, while the remaining 19 are in industrial applications. I was originally given misleading information on the number of large-scale CCS plants operating, but after the article was published I was told the correct figures (see above), with which my editor says she’ll amend the article (she hasn’t done so yet).



Silicon metal smelters in Iceland – past, present and future

PCC Bakki are rather secretive about how well their silicon metal smelter in North Iceland is performing. They have not published any news on their website since December last year and their Facebook page gives limited information. Both are only in Icelandic.

However, the German site of the holding company has more recent news, dated April 30: “Our silicon metal production facility in Iceland currently operates with only one furnace. We shut down the second one due to a technical malfunction and it will remain out of operation until the plant constructor has carried out the projected modification of the roof. However, due to travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, this modification is likely to be postponed to the summer of this year“.

The holding company has an 87% share in PCC Bakki, the remainder being in the hands of Íslandsbanki bank and pension funds.

The PCC Quarterly Report 1/2020 is equally illuminating. Talking about the PCC company as a whole, it says: “The performance of PCC BakkiSilicon hf., Húsavík (Iceland), was adversely affected by the severe winter which lasted into April this year and led to several production interruptions during the quarter. The production output of PCC BakkiSilicon hf. was therefore significantly lower than planned, with corresponding effects on volume and sales. … The earnings for the first quarter of 2020 were likewise below our expectations and down on the previous year. The gross profit ratio declined compared to preceding quarters. The main reasons for this development … were the losses incurred by PCC BakkiSilicon hf.

Towards the end of the report, more information is revealed. After repeating that Iceland’s severe winter weather had been detrimental to the smelter’s performance, the report goes on to say: “Moreover, PCC BakkiSilicon hf. remained unable to fully benefit from the slightly rising price level for silicon metal as a number of old contracts still had to be serviced at low prices during the first quarter. Meanwhile, one of the two arc furnaces has had to be entirely shut down due to the effects of Covid-19 and will probably not be put back into operation until completion by the plant construction contractor of the rehabilitation work on the roof of the facility’s filter house. Due to coronavirus restrictions, this rebuild planned for May will probably be delayed until summer 2020. The second furnace is presently operating stably. Our team on site is also currently working flat out on the implementation of various measures to increase efficiency and thus reduce costs in order to sustainably improve the earnings situation over the long term.

However, it seems, from their Facebook page, that they have indeed being trying to start up the problematic arc furnace in May – unless their “stable” furnace has also been having problems. There are posts dated May 5, May 8, May 14, May 15 and May 28, which detail “cleaning” of one of the furnaces (twice), a broken electrode, unspecified repair work and maintenance work. In each case they warn that white or light-coloured smoke could be expected to emanate from the plant, and sometimes odour is mentioned.

Despite all the problems the PCC plant has been encountering with its “best available technology”, on the other side of Iceland Stakksberg (owned by Arion bank) is still trying to sell the silicon smelter that was owned and operated by United Silicon until it was closed down. Stakksberg have produced an environmental impact assessment for the Helguvik smelter that is composed of a number of separate files, probably in the hope that if the EIA gets approved the smelter will be easier to sell. The EIA is initially aimed at operating one furnace, but this will be stepped up to four furnaces in due course.

One of the files is from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, NILU. Considering that  odour and respiratory problems were frequent complaints from local residents when the Helguvik smelter was operating, it is somewhat pathetic that NILU cannot provide better information that “While there have been several measurement studies around Norwegian metallurgic industries, no studies especially link emissions to odor and/or health impacts on the nearest neighbours. Nevertheless, we have included summary of three older studies, which we believe are relevant even if the source of emissions is not silicon industries.

I haven’t read the whole EIA, but it would be interesting to know if those responsible for it have probed into the problems at PCC’s smelter at Bakki in the north of Iceland and taken account of the problems encountered there – including such basics as “severe winter weather”. I doubt they have.

Update: PCC have announced that they will be closing their silicon smelter at Bakki, supposedly on a temporary basis. They blame COVID-19 – there has been less demand and prices are lower. There is (as yet) nothing on their website, or the international PCC website, or PCC Bakki Facebook page, but here is a report in Icelandic giving more information. I will write another blog soon about it.

Neither fin whales nor minke whales to be killed off Iceland this summer

Last week, it was reported that once again Iceland would not be hunting fin whales this year. Kristjan Loftsson, the man behind the killing, gave several reasons for his decision.


One reason is that since Japan started to allow commercial whaling in 2018 rather than “research whaling”, the Japanese government now subsidizes Japanese whaling ships, which makes it difficult for Loftsson to compete commercially (plus of course he has to get the whale meat to Japan via a circuitous route as so few ports are willing to allow him in).

Loftsson also says that the Japanese have stricter requirements for chemical analysis for Icelandic whale meat than for their own whale meat.

But he also sees potential problems when processing the meat due to COVID-19. He says that the work involves staff working near each other. If one of his employees becomes infected with the coronavirus, all the others will have to go into quarantine for two weeks, which means it will be impossible to cut up the dead whales, etc. He actually has faced legal action for carrying out whale processing in the open air, but has wangled his way out of it.

Although he will not be killing more whales this year, Loftsson still intends to carry on with the university-based research on making gelatin out of whale bones, an iron-rich supplement for people suffering from anaemia, and using whale blubber for medicinal purposes and food production.

On 2018, 146 fin whales and 6 minke whales were killed off Iceland.

The minke whalers basically gave up in 2018, as  their main hunting grounds near Reykjavik had become a whaling sanctuary. That year, they stopped soon after they started.

Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, who runs the company IP-útgerð that ran the minke-whaling operation, said this week that he does not envisage doing any more minke whaling.

Ironically, a report was produced last year by Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies which concluded that whaling in Iceland would be profitable. That report was, however, subject to heavy criticism for the assumptions made.


Icelandic pension funds reduce shares in Iceland’s silicon metal plant

The Icelandic pension funds obviously don’t have much faith in the PCC silicon metal plant in North Iceland, as they have reduced the values of their shares in the plant by 75-100%. Íslandsbanki have also reduced the value of their shares “considerably”, without disclosing how much.

A company called Bakkastakki manages the billion kronur investments by the Icelandic pension funds. The five pension funds involved had acquired a 13.5 % share in Bakkastakki, with the German company PCC SE holding 86. 5% stake in the silicon plant. Icelanders can read about it here.

The reason for the action taken by the pension funds (which PCC had approached last year when searching for more funds) was the great deal of uncertainty about the operation of the silicon plant (i.e. delays and difficulties), coupled with harsh conditions in the commodity markets.

Meanwhile, two and a half years after it was closed down by the Environment Agency, Stakksberg is still trying to sell the beleaguered United Silicon smelter in Helguvik in southwest Iceland. And the PCC problems probably haven’t helped.