Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘aluminium smelters’

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.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Straumsvik smelter, due to high electricity costs – which Icelanders consider are actually very low – and “historically low” aluminium prices. They may even close the smelter. The review is expected to be completed within the next few months.

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Colossal increase in greenhouse gases in Iceland

The emission of greenhouse gases in Iceland rose by 26% between 1990 and 2015 and amounted to 4.6 million tonnes in 2014. At the same time, there was a 24% decrease for the same time period in the EU as a whole. On a per capita basis, this is equivalent to 14 tonnes of CO2 equivalents compared to 7.4 tonnes for the EU. According to a detailed report published in Icelandic by the Institute of Economic Studies last month, emissions could increase by 53-99% by 2030 or by 33-79%, if carbon sequestration by forestry and land restoration are taken into account.

These figures were the subject of debate in the Icelandic parliament yesterday, along with measures to be taken to reduce them. The Environment Minister’s report, which was basically an abridged form of the IES report and again is in Icelandic, was well received by all parties.

The high increase from 1990 is predominantly due to new aluminium smelters and other heavy industry, while new silicon metal plants and projected increases in aluminium production account for future uncertainties. Although emissions from these will come under the Emissions Trading System, they will still have an effect on the environment. Currently, 80% of electricity in Iceland is used by aluminium smelters and other heavy industry.

The policy statement of the new Icelandic government stated that they would prepare an Action Plan in line with the Paris Agreement (Iceland did not prepare one for COP21, but instead lumped themselves under the EU objectives, under something called “part of the collective delivery”). The Action Plan will include green incentives, forestry, land restoration and renewable energy in transport. However, the IES report includes around 30 measures with varying degrees of feasibility.

Iceland is known for deriving virtually all of its energy for domestic heating and electricity from renewable sources. Clearly, more needs to be done if it is to obtain its goals for 2020 and beyond.

Note that a version of this was published by ENDS Europe today.