Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘Helguvík’

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.

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 Icdelandic giving more information. I will write another blog soon about it.

Difficult silicon market hinders sale of Helguvik smelter

Iceland’s Arion Bank, which has a number of holding companies including Stakksberg, the company entailed with the task of trying to sell the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik originally owned by United Silicon and closed down by the Environment Agency (EA) in September 2017, has sent out a statement saying that they have reduced the value ascribed to Stakksberg from 6.9 billion kronur (USD 52.9 million) at the end of March 2019 to 3.2 billion kronur (USD 25.6 million) nine months later.

Stakksberg has been rectifying some of the problems with the smelter identified by the EA, and has been trying to find a buyer for almost two years. The smelter’s original owner, United Silicon, went bankrupt in January 2018, but in December 2017 they too were searching for buyers.

According to Stakksberg’s homepage, the idea was to have the smelter up and running in the last quarter of 2020.

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Arion Bank says that because of “uncertainty in the market, several manufacturers have reduced their production or closed smelters. Thus unused manufacturing capacity is available that might well have a negative effect on the sale of the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik”.

If they have done their homework, potential buyers – if there are any – would be aware of the problems faced by PCC Bakki Silicon in the north, who asked for more funding last year. PCC have also had unexpected problems with Iceland’s winter weather, and say that the problems they have encountered were not those they were expecting – despite using best available technology, etc. None of this would be of any comfort to prospective buyers of the Helguvik smelter down south.

People involved in ASH, the campaign group against the reopening of the Helguvik silicon smelter, are overjoyed however, as there was a lot of opposition by locals to the smelter during the short time that it was operating.

It’s not just the silicon metal industry that is facing problems. Because of worsening conditions in the aluminium market, which are “very demanding”, Iceland’s oldest aluminium smelter is going to operate at 15% reduced capacity in 2020, with a corresponding decrease in electricity use. The plant is currently Iceland’s second largest user of electricity.

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This smelter, which is situated on the outskirts of the capital city, is currently owned by Rio Tinto Alcan but was searching for a new owner two years ago. Norsk Hydro was going to buy it but the sale fell through seven months later.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Icelandic smelter at Straumsvik, 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.

 

Social impact assessment important in accessing perceptions of projects

Iceland’s environment ministry has just held a symposium on social impacts of energy projects in Iceland, in particular in relation to new power plants envisaged as part of the 4th Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Key speakers were a couple now living in the Netherlands: an academic from the University of Gröningen, Frank Vanclay, and his practitioner wife, Ana-Maria Esteves, who works with the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

Much of the symposium was related to social environmental assessment itself, irrespective of country. So for instance when a fracking project is announced, there might be impacts from vehicle noise of various types, exhaust fumes, increased accident risk, injury or even death, costs of road repair from increased traffic, and changing character of the town (less peaceful, etc.). These are balanced by the potential for local income from spending by drivers, plus other services for drivers.

Everything is social, Frank said: landscape analysis; archeological and heritage impacts; community, cultural and linguistic impacts; demographic and economic impacts; gender issues; health and psychological impacts; political issues such as human rights; resource issues, and indigenous issues. Social impacts depend on project characteristics, as well as characteristics of the community, individuals and any proposed mitigation. Impacts cannot be measured in advance, but social impacts should be done before environmental impacts. Speculation starts as soon as there is even a rumour of a proposed development, he says. If there is no consensus, projects should not proceed.

As an activist, I found his slide on the different types of protest interesting.

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Ana said that “the purpose of benefit-sharing is to retain part of a project’s economic benefits in the region where the project is located”. These may be voluntary or non-voluntary, monetary or non-monetary. Who decides, who distributes, who benefits? And how do people perceive negative aspects?

The Icelanders who spoke brought up local issues. Birna Björk Árnadóttir from the Planning Agency brought up the case of a proposed hydropower plant, Hvalár, in an isolated region of northwest Iceland where people have been divided into two factions: proponents (mainly locals) who say “this is our project, let us decide” and opponents, who say “to whom do the fjords belong”?

In line with some of what Ana said earlier in the symposium, developers of this project have promised various benefits for the local villagers.

In terms of social impact assessments for power plants, the following should be covered: access to electricity and electrical safety, population changes, land use, employment, property value, fringe benefits and perks, public health, cultural heritage, and tourism and recreation. Employment weighs heavily in the assessments, whereas tourism and recreation are usually the most-researched factors.

In Iceland, social impact assessment has only been carried out with large projects such as construction of the dam and aluminium plant in East Iceland. Given the proximity of the currently non-operating silicon metal smelter in Helguvik, south-west Iceland, to local communities, it would have been better if a social impact assessment had been carried out there first. Stakksberg, the company set up by Arion Bank to see to the amendments and potential sale of the smelter, could still decide to carry out a social impact assessment for the project – but I doubt they will.

 

 

Iceland’s PCC silicon smelter in search of extra funds

The PCC silicon smelter at Bakki, North Iceland, is asking its owners and other investors, such as pension funds, for up to 5 billion kronur (almost $US 40 million) to provide a firmer base for its operations. The majority of the money is expected to come from the holding company of the PCC Group, PCC SE, which has an 86.5% share in the Bakki smelter. Pension funds currently have a 13.5% share in the silicon smelter. PCC SE already provided extra funds last year in the form of a shareholder loan, totalling $US 34 million.

Although PCC SE proudly states: “In the north of Iceland we have constructed one of the world’s most advanced and most environmentally compatible facilities for silicon metal production which was commissioned in 2018”, it has in fact suffered innumerable problems and has frequently, if not usually, operated at reduced capacity due to various problems.

Just this week, the first furnace had to be switched off due to a leak in the cooling system, which led to melting of part of the electrode (þrýstiklemma in Icelandic).  A new part has to be ordered. Note that the PCC website gives very little information about the plant’s problems.

Besides operating problems, the market price of silicon metal has been decreasing recently.

News of PCC’s financial problems must surely make it harder for Stakksberg to sell the former United Silicon plant in Helguvik, Southwest Iceland.

Update 22 September: They say that they have been running at much lower capacity for the last few weeks, and are only producing about 35 tonnes a day instead of 90. It also turns out that there was a second accident involving a “gun” last month, though this was not reported at the time.

 

 

Call for Health Impact Assessment for Helguvik silicon smelter

I got a document yesterday from the Planning Agency (now available in Icelandic on the Net) because I’d made comments to a proposal for what should be covered in an environmental impact assessment concerning improvements to the closed-down silicon smelter formerly owned by United Silicon.

Besides allowing comments from the public (which they took no notice of, except to say that many residents had complained of health problems!), they’d asked for comments from bodies such as the Environment Agency, Directorate of Health, the local council, the Marine Research Institute, the Met Office and others.

Some of the information was particularly interesting. For instance, the Directorate of Health said that a Health Impact Assessment should be done because of all the complaints received from local residents. Stakksberg (the current owners) responded by saying that they were not aware of HIAs being done in Iceland, and until legislation was passed about HIAs, they were not going to do one!

When United Silicon was operating the plant, the temperature of the cooling water was 7°C and was discharged into the sea afterwards, when the temperature was not supposed to go over 10°C. Was this the case? No – the maximum recorded cooling temperature of the cooling water was 36°C! As a biologist, I was appalled by this. The draft EIA has to show how much area will be affected by the cooling water and what the temperature difference will be.

The Met Office were concerned about the aquifiers, which they said were very susceptible to disturbance in that area. They also said that there should be a scenario for when the worst possible weather conditions occur, i.e. calm weather/gentle breeze and also when there was high humidity.

They also had concerns about some of the substances emitted from the operation, some of which are bio-accumulative (or accumulate in soils) or do not change into less toxic materials. These substances include heavy metals such as arsenic, persistent organic compounds and sulphur compounds.

The Environment Agency said that because most of the odour problems occur when the smelter is not running at full capacity, a distribution model of pollutants should be done for volatile organic compounds (VOC) with different exhaust temperatures.

The EA also said that the option of not starting up the plant again should be considered.

Many other points came up too, and there were conflicting opinions from different agencies about whether a emergency chimney was needed or not.

I still suspect that the plant won’t start up again. Stakksberg announced long ago that they were trying to sell the plant, but they haven’t succeeded yet. They originally implied that they had no intention of running the plant themselves.

The document I received yesterday raised so many issues that I suspect it will take a long time to process them all.

Iceland’s silicon metal industry still having problems

PCC Bakki Silicon mentioned on their Facebook page recently that although their first furnace was operating smoothly for considerable time (which I doubt is the case), furnace no. 2 was still causing them problems. “Now”, they say, the cooling system is leaking water and they have to open the emergency chimney again. The plant is causing endless problems, like the first silicon plant at Helguvik that was eventually closed down after nine months of operation.

In response to the leak, one person – obviously a member of ASH, the group opposed to the silicon smelter in Helguvik  – commented: “Helguvik all over again.”

The Bakki smelter is supposedly using BAT,  Best Available Technology, or Best Available Techniques, which sounds reassuring but is just a bluff that doesn’t mean anything.

Engineering-related problems are not their only worries. There was another small fire this morning at the plant, in the same place as the first fire.

They are also about to get their third CEO since the plant started operation about a year ago. Ostensibly, CEO no. 2 wants to move down south again for personal reasons.

In response to a question I asked  at a public meeting last year, organized by the company Stakksberg that is currently seeing to the “refurbishment” of the Helguvik plant, the Stakksberg director, Thordur Olafur Thordarson,  admitted that he did not know about the problems that PCC was having.

Stakksberg is a daughter company of Arion Bank, set up specifically to see to the Helguvik smelter, and has been trying to sell the former United Silicon plant for many months. Originally, Arion Bank said that they had a number of prospective buyers, but they obviously haven’t succeeded yet – and with all the countless problems that PCC is having, I can’t see any company wanting to take it on.

Indeed, even though Stakksberg never intended to run the Helguvik plant themselves, their website now says:

Stakksberg owns a plant in Helguvik, which produces 99% pure silicon (Si) and has a production capacity of 23,000 tonnes per year. The silicon is used, among other things, to manufacture solar cells and computer circuits. Some 70 persons will be employed at Stakksberg’s plant in Helguvik when the plant starts its operation.

Note the use of the present tense (produces, is used) and the use of the words “Stakksberg’s plant”. The website makes no mention of trying to sell the plant. Stakksberg say they hope to start the Helguvik plant up in the last quarter of 2020.

That won’t be popular.

 

Former United Silicon smelter rears its ugly head again

At a packed residents’ meeting last night over the future of the silicon metal plant in Helguvik formerly owned by United Silicon, Thordur Thordarson from Stakksberg said, in  response to a question about whether the thought had ever occurred to them to simply dismantle the plant, “Too much money has been spent on the silicon metal smelter already. If we abandon the aim of resurrecting the plant, it would be inexcusable handling of money.”

But the local campaigning group ASH say that they don’t want it to reopen.

Stakksberg is the company set up by Arion Bank to deal with the mess left by United Silicon. They intend to sell the plant when the extensive repairs and modifications have been completed. They say that the plant should be operational by 2020.

The meeting was called at two days’ notice. In the intervening period, considerable media attention was directed at the dormant plant, and the other silicon plant designed to be adjacent to the (Stakksberg) plant. The latter plant, which would be operated by Thorsil, had virtually disappeared off the drawing board as nothing had been heard about it for about two years – until someone from the local council said that the two silicon metal smelters would rescue Helguvik harbour.

The meeting, which lasted for almost three hours, consisted of explanations by Thordarson followed by powerpoint presentations by a Verkis engineer and a consultant from Norwegian firm Multiconsult. The first EIA for the Stakksberg/United Silicon plant was ostensibly prepared by Verkis, while Multiconsult were brought in last year to advise on problems – apparently, seven silicon metal smelters operate smoothly in Norway (though, unbeknown to the Multiconsult engineer, there appear to be health problems such as silicosis afflicting the workers).

Thordarson said that the “most able specialists” were advising Stakksberg. Note that United Silicon also said they had experts on hand to deal with any problems, and look what happened there.

Two of us brought up the matter of PCC Bakki, whose silicon smelter has been beset by problems and where start-up has not been easy, to say the least. Thordarson said he was not aware of the situation there, but “must look into it”. Unbelievable!!!

Other issues were brought up during question time. If Thorsil gets to operate with four furnaces and Stakksberg with four, how will anyone know which smelter is to blame if pollution levels rise sky high? No one knew the answer.

The Multiconsult person said that routine maintenance would mean that the furnaces would be shut down sometimes. Each time a furnace is restarted, there is the risk of burning odours. Multiply that by four (or eight) and there could be constant problems. One of the additions to the plant will be an emergency smoke stack that will operate during start-up. Some people are not convinced that this will make a difference.

Outside of the meeting, ASH is preparing a group lawsuit to call for a citizen’s referendum to try and stop the plant from becoming operational again.

A scoping document (in Icelandic) for a fresh EIA has been put forward and can be seen here.

 

 

PCC silicon smelter at Bakki no better than United Silicon’s smelter at Helguvik

The Icelandic media have gradually woken up to the fact that the silicon smelter  operated by PCC at Bakki in North Iceland is little better than Iceland’s first silicon smelter at Helguvik, owned by United Silicon, which was closed down by the Environment Agency on September 1 last year after about nine months of operation. Initially, the lack of media attention indicated that everything was going to plan, when in fact this was not the case at all.

Besides having to switch the first furnace at Bakki on and off a number of times, with accompanying odour problems, when it was finally brought into operation after a delay of over four months, there was a fire at Bakki in July and ongoing problems with the start-up of the second furnace. Bogi, which apparently still hasn’t become fully functional (United Silicon were never allowed to start up a second furnace because of the problems with the first one).

Then last month there was an accident to one of the workers, when he was using a “gun” to open part of the furnace and the bullet rebound to hit him on his arm.

The trade union for the plant’s workers, Framsýn, say that staff turnover has been rapid and that many of the new workers come from Estonia. Workers are discontented and relations between management and ordinary workers are strained – probably not helped by the accident.

In mid-September the smelter’s first managing director, Hafsteinn Viktorsson, was replaced by Jokull Gunnarsson, who had previously been in charge of the plant’s production process. The media have complained that it is nigh impossible to contact Gunnarsson.

The company make light of all their problems, glossing over them with words such as “There are many things to think about when starting up a furnace…” “and “Such events can occur…”.

Just as I thought that the ongoing problems at Bakki must make it unlikely that a buyer would be found for the Helguvik smelter, it was reported that many investors had shown interest in buying the Helguvik plant. PCC still don’t have any news in English on their website or their Facebook page, so I don’t know how much the prospective buyers of the Helguvik plant know about the problems encountered by PCC with its “best available technology”.

One item of interest concerning the Helguvik plant is that Stakksberg – the company set up by Arion Bank to sell the smelter – has been working with the local Reykjanesbaer council to change the district land-use plans because two of the smelter’s buildings are too high. One would have expected that the smelter’s buildings would have been adapted to the plans….

Update, 23 October: They STILL haven’t managed to get the second furnace to work.

Update, 10 November: They seem to have got Boga working again.

Second silicon furnace begins operation at PCC Bakki

PCC Bakki Silicon started up their second furnace last night, 1 September (ironically exactly a year from when Iceland’s Environment Agency closed down United Silicon’s  silicon smelter in Helguvik, southwest Iceland). They’ve called it Boga.

PCC’s first furnace was called Birta, and suffered a number of setbacks, most of which I’ve probably blogged about, including a fire. One setback I haven’t yet mentioned happened on August 22, when a computer problem caused the emergency smokestack to open for 15 minutes or so. A lot of smoke was released, and residents of the local town complained of a burning odour that residents near the Helguvik plant would recognise at once. This is not by any means the first time this has happened, as less than a month after Birta was started, it was reported that the emergency smokestack had to be opened four or five times due to various problems, although the problems they encountered were not the ones they expected.

PCC are very keen to gloss over their technical problems and have always tried to maintain a glowing image of the factory.

That said, PCC management have said that local residents might experience a burning odour while the second furnace is being brought into use. It will be interesting to see how many problems are experienced with the second furnace.

Update: They reported on their Facebook page on Saturday that the start-up of Boga was proving more complex than expected. had been problems with the feeding system that had shorted not just the second furnace but also the first one. This had happened about a week earlier. They got the latter (Birta) going soon afterwards but decided that Boga needed more attention, not just with the material feeding system but also with the electrodes, which had broken and cracked too much. They were intending to start up Boga again later that day – with potential odours. Ho hum.

Update: They haven’t got Boga going again. On 21 September they said they realised there were a number of problems with it that needed attention and they’d report again when these were done – which hasn’t happened yet (25 September). Bogi has never reached full capacity.

Update: October 23: They STILL haven’t got Boga to work and they haven’t managed to identify the root of the problem.

Update: November 10: They seem to have got Boga working.