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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

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. Read More

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