Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy

Economy

Biden’s Big Bet on Aluminum

Climate policy is once again intertwined with industrial policy.

Green aluminum.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Famously energy intensive and dominated by Chinese smelters, aluminum sits at a curious nexus of climate and industrial policy.

The famously lightweight metal is something like the base metal of green industry. It’s used in the frames for solar panels, the control equipment for wind turbines, and in the hardware of electricity distribution. It’s lighter than steel, which makes it appealing to electric car manufacturers, like Tesla, who want to expand the range of their vehicles. Aluminum is often found in the batteries themselves, as well, specifically their enclosures. Overall, aluminum demand is projected to rise by some 40% by the end of the decade.

Like other industrial metals (namely steel), the U.S. aluminum industry has been a poster child of deindustrialization. Employment in the aluminum production industry has fallen from around 100,000 in 2000 to around 60,000 in 2022, with much of the fall happening in the few years after the United States established permanent normal trade relations with China. Earlier this year, the second largest smelter in the country said it would lay off most of its employees.

So, can the Biden administration bring aluminum smelting back to the United States?

The Department of Energy today announced $6 billion of funding for 33 industrial decarbonization projects, including four for aluminum, worth almost $670 million total. That includes up to $500 million for Century Aluminum to build a new primary smelter, which would make it the first new smelter in the United States since the late 1970s.

“Aluminum is a metal that is of incredible strategic importance to the U.S. and the world,” Jane Flegal, the former White House Senior Director for Industrial Emissions, told me. “We used to do a lot of aluminum production. That has declined precipitously.”

Obama, Trump and Biden have tried some combination of tariffs and negotiations to bring order to the global aluminum market — some of the Trump-era tariffs remain in place — but none of them had much success. Traditional climate policy, meanwhile, has focused more on the greenhouse gas emissions that come from transportation and electricity generation.

Heavy industry is a massive source of emissions, comprising about a fifth of the global total. The aluminum industry on its own makes up about 2% of global emissions, of which the smelting is responsible for about 80%, with the lion’s share going to the electricity being used to power the process. This makes smelting especially sensitive to both the price and availability of power. It’s no coincidence that Iceland, with its plentiful and always available hydropower and geothermal resources, is a major aluminum producer.

Many industrial processes themselves also produce emissions, which makes industrial decarbonization not just an adjunct of decarbonizing the electricity sector but rather an area that requires its own technological breakthroughs. For example, to make aluminum out of alumina, a powder that is refined from bauxite, requires consuming a carbon anode, which itself is made from an oil refining byproduct. These are businesses that operate on small margins and require huge capital investments to expand or change production, Flegal told me.

And the new technology necessary to decarbonize them wasn't being developed because “there wasn’t the level of investment in new technological pathways,” Todd Tucker, director of industrial policy and trade at the Roosevelt Institute, told me. “These demonstration projects are the first step of showing viability of new production methods.”

The Department of Energy said the smelter “would double the size of the current U.S. primary aluminum industry while avoiding an estimated 75% of emissions from a traditional smelter.” The DOE noted the preferred site for the smelter would be “Kentucky or Ohio/Mississippi River Basins.” Kentucky’s Governor Andy Beshear said Monday that Century had indicated an interest in the Bluegrass State, and that his office was working to put together a bundle of incentives to make the state more attractive.

Wherever it’s located, the facility is expected to create more than 1,000 permanent jobs, Century and the Department of Energy said, which would go to members of the United Steelworkers union. The USW has recently endorsed President Biden and applauded the DOE program.

The decades of job losses in the aluminum sector have “been devastating for our members and communities we work at,” Emil Ramirez, the USW’s vice president for administration, told me. “We have to give the Biden administration credit for recognizing the need to revitalize this important industry.”

Green
Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

Electric Vehicles

AM Briefing: Tesla’s Delay

On Musk’s latest move, Arctic shipping, and China’s natural disasters

Tesla Is Delaying the Robotaxi Reveal
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Heavy rains triggered a deadly landslide in Nepal that swept away 60 people • More than a million residents are still without power in and around Houston • It will be about 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Berlin on Sunday for the Euro 2024 final, where England will take on Spain.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Biden administration announces $1.7 billion to convert auto plants into EV factories

The Biden administration announced yesterday that the Energy Department will pour $1.7 billion into helping U.S. automakers convert shuttered or struggling manufacturing facilities into EV factories. The money will go to factories in eight states (including swing states Michigan and Pennsylvania) and recipients include Stellantis, Volvo, GM, and Harley-Davidson. Most of the funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and it could create nearly 3,000 new jobs and save 15,000 union positions at risk of elimination, the Energy Department said. “Agencies across the federal government are rushing to award the rest of their climate cash before the end of Biden’s first term,” The Washington Post reported.

Keep reading...Show less
Yellow
Politics

What the Conventional Wisdom Gets Wrong About Trump and the IRA

Anything decarbonization-related is on the chopping block.

Donald Trump holding the IRA.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Biden administration has shoveled money from the Inflation Reduction Act out the door as fast as possible this year, touting the many benefits all that cash has brought to Republican congressional districts. Many — in Washington, at think tanks and non-profits, among developers — have found in this a reason to be calm about the law’s fate. But this is incorrect. The IRA’s future as a climate law is in a far more precarious place than the Beltway conventional wisdom has so far suggested.

Shortly after the changing of the guard in Congress and the White House, policymakers will begin discussing whether to extend the Trump-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of 2025. If they opt to do so, they’ll try to find a way to pay for it — and if Republicans win big in the November elections, as recent polling and Democratic fretting suggests could happen, the IRA will be an easy target.

Keep reading...Show less
Climate

AM Briefing: A Wind and Solar Milestone

On the rise of renewables, peak oil, and carbon capture

U.S. Wind and Solar Just Hit a Power Milestone
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: More than 10 inches of rain fell over nine hours in southwestern China • Wildfires are spreading in Canada, with at least 140 burning as of yesterday afternoon • The streets of Cape Town in South Africa are under water after severe storms caused widespread flooding.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Wind and solar surpass nuclear in U.S. electricity generation

More electricity was generated by wind and solar than by nuclear plants in the first half of 2024 for the first time ever in U.S. history, Reutersreported, citing data from energy think tank Ember. Solar and wind farms generated 401.4 terawatt hours (TWh) compared to 390.5 TWh generated from nuclear reactors, setting 2024 on pace to be the “first full year when more U.S. electricity will come from renewables than from any other form of clean power.” It’s helpful to compare these numbers to the same period last year, when nuclear generated 9% more power than solar and wind. Solar saw the greatest gains, with output 30% higher in the first half of 2024 compared to 2023; wind generation was up 10% and nuclear was up just 3.4%. Between 2018 and 2023, installed capacity grew by 168% for utility solar and 56% for wind. Meanwhile, nuclear generation capacity dropped by 4%.

Keep reading...Show less
Yellow