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.