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Published on July 24th, 2019 | by Tina Casey

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Energy Commission Seeks Low-Carbon Aluminum, Bumps Into En+

July 24th, 2019 by  


In 2015, a group of leading global oil companies launched an organization devoted to decarbonizing the global economy. I know, you’re skeptical, right? Nevertheless, the so-named Energy Transitions Commission sees significant growth opportunities for renewable energy, and it has already charted a pathway for beating the Paris Agreement targets. In the latest development, the organization has just brought Russia’s En+ Group into its membership roster, indicating a focus on low carbon aluminum.

The Energy Transitions Commission Has More Bad News For Coal

US Department of Energy, Aluminum Industry Technology Roadmap cover (screenshot).

Does En+ ring any bells? It should! It’s the holding company for the Russia-based firm UC Rusal, which bills itself as the largest producer of aluminum outside of China.  Before we get to that, though, it seems that ETC has been flying under the CleanTechnica radar. Let’s catch up with them first.

Forbes contributor Jeff McMahon checked out ETC’s first global energy report in 2017 and took note of the organization’s four-point approach to decarbonization.

Decarbonizing the power sector tops the list, in combination with electrifying the transportation sector as well as electrifying buildings and, where possible, industry.

The plan also allows for alternative pathways including biofuels, hydrogen (presumably renewable hydrogen), and carbon capture (good luck with that, unless carbon recycling is involved).

The third item deals with energy efficiency and productivity. That may sound simple enough but it’s a broad category that could include everything from LED lighting to replacing people with robots and other automated systems, an area in which significant social consequences are anticipated.

Things also start to get interesting at the fourth item on the list, which deals with improving efficiency and preventing waste in whatever remains of the fossil fuel sector. It looks like not much will remain of coal if all goes according to plan. ETC calls for replacing coal with natural gas.  Tidying up the natural gas mess is also on the menu, specifically targeting methane leakage and flaring at oil fields.

The fourth item also includes carbon capture and storage. What, that again!?  Carbon capture and storage is so 2013. Unless, of course, you’re talking about reforestation.

Last February the American Chemical Society’s C&EN publication took a look at the current state of negative carbon technology and concluded that there are some serious issues to be resolved if CCS is to be achieved at scale (exhibit A would be the FutureGen project in the US).

Low Carbon Aluminum: More Bad News For Coal

Aluminum smelting is one of those coal-dependent industrial processes that can be more resistant to decarbonization on a bottom line basis. However, the financial aspect is beginning to improve as aluminum producers realize that “green” aluminum can command a premium price.

Alcoa is a good example of a legacy aluminum producer transitioning to renewable energy. The company has already gotten a lot of mileage from its hydropower assets. More recently it embarked on a joint venture with Rio Tinto to develop a low carbon smelting process backed by Apple.

That finally brings us around to En+ Group. Yesterday morning CleanTechnica received an email (sorry, no online link yet) announcing that En+ Group has joined ETC “as part of its strategy to lead a global shift towards low carbon aluminium.”

As an ETC member En+ will work alongside other decarbonization leaders, like Schneider Electric, to develop and pursue best practices for reducing carbon emissions.

Low Carbon Aluminum: The Plot Thickens…

Like Alcoa, En+ already has a leg up on the decarbonization mission through its hydropower assets. Last spring the firm took another big step toward low carbon aluminum promotion with the announcement of a new partnership with US based Braidy Industries for “America’s First Low-Carbon, High Value Aluminum Mill,” the Braidy Atlas mill in Ashland, Kentucky.

The $200 million deal will result in the first “greenfield” aluminum mill built in the US in almost 40 years. If you know what greenfield means in this context, drop us a note in the comment thread.

More to the point, the deal will enable Braidy to stake its claim as the first US producer to use “100% low-carbon inputs from inception.” Under the terms of the agreement, the Braidy Atlas mill will process only Rusal’s certified low carbon ALLOW aluminum slabs and P1020 ingots.

Low carbon is just part of the plan for Braidy Atalas. The mill will also produce lightweight aluminum based on technology from two acquisitions last year, the MIT spinoff Veloxint and the Northwestern University spinoff NanoA.

…And Thickens!

From a cleantech standpoint, this is all good news. Aside from decarbonizing aluminum production, the use of lighter weight aluminum will have a ripple effect on energy efficiency in the auto industry and other sectors. It’s good news for the Kentucky economy, too.

The politics revolving around the new plant is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

If Rusal and En+ still don’t ring any bells, here’s CNN on that topic last January:

“The Trump administration on Sunday formally lifted sanctions on three Russian firms with links to oligarch Oleg Deripaska, including Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminum producer.

[snip]

“The Treasury Department said that Rusal and EN+ Group, the holding company of the Russian aluminum giant, as well as energy firm JSC EuroSibEnergo had made significant restructuring and corporate governance changes to diminish Deripaska’s ownership and sever his control to allow them to meet the criteria to be delisted within the 30 days.”

Now does En+ ring a bell? Oleg Deripska became a household word after the 2016 US presidential election, when allegations of Russian interference gave rise to the Mueller Report.

US Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) stated that his support for lifting the sanctions had nothing to do with the Braidy deal. The timing is interesting, though. The Braidy deal was formalized in May, just a few months after the Trump* administration lifted the sanctions.

Meanwhile, last week the Louisville Courier-Journal, among other media, noted that Braidy only has a few months to raise an additional $300 million to complete its financial arrangements for the Atlas plant.

What’s holding up the works? According to the Courier-Journal (follow that link to support local journalism!), the financial picture is getting super complicated. Rusal now has appointed two seats on the Braidy Atlas board of directors in addition to a stake in the new mill.

The State of Kentucky has also become an investor (I know, right?), prompting the Courier-Journal to run an earlier piece headlined, “Is Braidy Industries of Kentucky getting in bed with Russian mobsters?”

At one point Braidy was also anticipating a technology loan from the US Department of Energy, but reportedly that is no longer in the works. That leads to the question of what the other Energy Transitions Commission members think about rubbing elbows with En+. If you have any answers, drop us a note in the comments.

Anyways, all of this has piqued our interest in green aluminum here in the US. After all, if “made in America” is the focus of the Trump administration’s trade policy, why not buy green aluminum from a US company?

Why not, indeed. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the Department of Energy for an update on its activities in the low carbon aluminum field, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

Photo (screenshot): US Department of Energy. 
 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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