Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘United Silicon’

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Fire at PCC silicon smelter

The Icelandic media have just reported that a fire broke out last night at the PCC silicon smelter at Bakki, Husavik. The fire was in the furnace building and lasted about three hours. No one was hurt.

PCC have not put any news on their website since 8 June, so I don’t know whether it’s actually been operating as their last news said that they intended to start up the furnace again after midnight, i.e. June 9. I emailed them two weeks or so ago to ask if the reason nothing new was on their website was because nothing newsworthy was happening, but they didn’t reply. They had generally reported when the plant was being started up again but this time they didn’t.

Perhaps now the Environment Agency will start looking more closely into the operation at Bakki.

Today is the deadline for comments on the scoping document for improvements to the United Silicon plant which the company Stakksberg are overseeing. Stakksberg was set up specifically by Arion Bank for the process, as it is intended to sell the plant and get it operating again, though probably this will not happen before 2020. Karen Kjartansdottir, who was in charge of publicity for United Silicon, is now doing the same for Stakksberg.

Fire in silicon smelters is not unheard of, at least not in Iceland, as three fires occurred in the United Silicon plant at Helguvik, southwest Iceland, before the plant was eventually closed by the Environment Agency. Activists from ASH, the group opposed to heavy industry at Helguvik, are not surprised by the fire at Bakki – the best possible technology was supposedly being used at Bakki but STILL a fire can occur.

Problems with the United Silicon plant were partly attributed to the owners using a mismatch of equipment. But it appears that silicon smelters are proving more of a problem than the Icelandic authorities – not to mention the Icelandic government –  originally thought.

Stay tuned – this blog will probably get updated.

Update: PCC Bakki are on Facebook.  They have news (in Icelandic) there, including about the fire. They want to start up the other furnace as soon as possible while the other is getting repaired/checked. They have also now (mid-afternoon Tuesday) updated the news page on their website with information about the fire.

Update 19 July: They have still not started up the smelter again. “It is clear that changes have to be made,” they say.

Update 25 July: They began to start it up again yesterday morning (the process has to be done gradually), but shut it down 8 hours later due to a leak in the cooling system. They warned that villagers might be aware of odour.

Silicon metal plant at Helguvik may start operation in 2020

I didn’t think it was possible, but it looks like it is. Final touches are being made to designs for improvements to the  beleaguered silicon metal plant that was previously owned and operated by United Silicon. After United Silicon went into liquidation, Arion Bank took over and set up a new company, EB0117 ehf, that has the remit of getting the plant into a functional state again. img_0223

Apparently, some of the improvements will be subject to an EIA – I’d thought that the whole development would be subject to an EIA but it looks like this won’t happen.

The bank wants to sell the plant. Some buyers are said to have shown interest, including large companies that already operate silicon metal plants and are supposed to know what they’re doing.

The plan is for the plant to restart in 2020. Costs are expected to be around ISK 3 billion (almost 25 million Euros), but better estimates won’t be known until the autumn.

Meanwhile, PCC Bakki have announced that they intend to double the capacity of their silicon metal plant in the north as they will not necessarily have to invest in a great deal of extra equipment, with the exception of a building to house two extra furnaces. Admittedly, this expansion had been part of the original plan, but I suspect people are surprised that PCC is thinking about the expansion so soon, after experiencing various teething problems.

However, the expansion will need financing, and that process will take at least 1.5 years. Designing the expansion will probably take 4-6 months.

In the meantime, anything might happen.

Update: Recent council elections have led to a new majority in Reykjanesbaer, which includes Helguvik, which says it rejects the development of polluting industry at Helguvik and is opposed to the reopening of the silicon metal plant there. This might also mean that Thorsil will give up on its plan to set up a silicon metal smelter opposite the one previously owned by United Silicon.

Watch this space.

Update: It appears that the company known as EB0117 is now called Stakksberg and comments have been requested for a draft evaluation strategy (in Icelandic) (scoping document) for improvements to the plant. The deadline for comments is July 10.