Column: Aluminum is the West’s critical minerals blind spot

Aluminum. Stock image.

Aluminum is classified as a critical mineral by both the United States and the European Union.

You wouldn’t know it from the perilous state of primary metal production on both sides of the Atlantic.

High energy costs, particularly in Europe, have caused multiple smelters to close or curtail output with the result that run rates are the lowest this century.

Back in 2020, the World Bank identified aluminum as a “high-impact” and “cross-cutting” metal in all existing and potential green energy technologies.

Yet aluminum hasn’t even made it onto the list of metals covered by the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which will set targets for both domestic production and import dependency.

The United States has tried via import tariffs to support its domestic producers but with little lasting success.

Even the Inflation Reduction Act with its generous subsidies for domestically-sourced metal is unlikely to work without addressing aluminum’s green energy paradox.

Western European primary aluminium production is the lowest this century

Production slump

Western European primary aluminum production has been sliding since 2017 but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting spike in energy prices have accelerated the downtrend.

Output fell by 12.5% last year and has slipped further this year with the region’s annualized production averaging 2.7 million tonnes in the first four months of 2023, according to the International Aluminium Institute (IAI). West European run rates exceeded 4.5 million tonnes fifteen years ago.

US primary metal production has been falling since 2019 with two out of seven domestic smelters fully curtailed and three operating at reduced capacity, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The USGS estimates domestic production was running at just 52% of capacity at the end of last year with import dependency growing to 54% from 41% in 2021.

The decline in Western production contrasts with the rise of China, which now accounts for around 58% of the global output, the sort of dominance that has triggered significant re-shoring efforts in other critical minerals such as lithium and rare earth.

While the US market can lean on Canada for primary aluminum supply, Europe has traditionally relied on Russia, now a highly problematic long-term partner.

US primary smelters operating at just 52% of capacity at end-2022

Green demand

Even allowing for greater recycling, the world will need another 25 million tonnes of primary production capacity if it is to meet its emissions reduction goals, according to the IAI.

Aluminum is used directly in all new energy technology, particularly in solar power, where it accounts for 85% of photovoltaic (PV) components in the form of the frames that hold the PV panels together.

The metal’s future demand profile is also tied to the accelerating roll-out of electric vehicles. Automakers are using more aluminum to light-weight their cars to get greater efficiency out of batteries.

The amount of aluminum used in European cars increased by 18% from 174kg in 2019 to 205kg in 2022, according to automotive consultancy Ducker Carlisle in a report commissioned by European Aluminium.

The report predicts this trend will continue, with the average aluminum content projected to increase from 205kg in 2022 to 237kg by 2026 and 256kg per vehicle by 2030.

The future should be bright for the West’s beleaguered aluminum smelters, particularly as Europe and the United States channel government funding down green accelerator paths.

Widening the supply-demand gap

The problem, however, is that too much of that government largesse is going to aluminum’s demand side and not enough to supply.

The Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will channel $1.25 trillion to green energy sectors, according to US think-tank SAFE’s Center for Strategic Industrial Metals. (“Legislative Analysis for the US Aluminum Industry”, May 2023)

Since all green energy applications from solar to wind to electric vehicles use aluminum, the combined effect is to accelerate demand.

However, the amount of funding available to aluminum’s supply side in the form of manufacturing credits and grants for domestic processing comes in at just $126 billion, according to SAFE. Moreover, investment is “contingent on decarbonization and funding is highly competitive,” it notes.

Being left behind

Carbon is at the heart of aluminum’s green energy paradox.

The metal is a critical material for enabling economy-wide decarbonization but at the same is one of the highest emitting industrial metals, particularly those smelters powered by fossil fuels.

“By setting the decarbonization conditionality for supply-side support and simultaneously increasing demand across multiple sectors, the United States entraps itself in this cycle,” SAFE contends.

In other words, simply providing funds for smelters to reduce their direct emissions won’t solve the problem unless there is a simultaneous investment in greening their power supply.

The carbon problem is compounded in Europe by the proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which “will do more harm than good”, according to Emanuele Manigrassi, European Aluminium’s Senior Manager of Regulatory Affairs.

“We expect the CBAM to only increase the costs of production and consumption of aluminum in Europe, with no reduction in global emissions,” Manigrassi wrote in a May 17 blog.

Energy, particularly green energy, holds the key to preserving a primary aluminum production base in both Europe and the United States.

US policy in its current form “threatens to leave its own aluminum behind” by neglecting to recognize the metal’s green power paradox, SAFE warns.

Both US and European sectors need a more holistic approach from policymakers.

The EU could start by including aluminum in the CRMA.

Europe’s primary aluminum sector is facing an existential crisis, according to Europe Aluminium’s general secretary Paul Voss, speaking at a forum jointly hosted with Eurometaux last month.

“If the political signal is this material isn’t very important, of course, you could just let it go to the wall,” he said.

But if Europe wants to stay in the business of making primary aluminum, “just put us on the damn list.”

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, Andy Home, a columnist for Reuters.)

(Editing by Sharon Singleton)


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