Exporting renewable energy via refined minerals

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An efficient way for Australia to export renewable energy is to expand our refining of minerals and export refined products, like aluminium, zinc, steel, and manganese. We could greatly expand this export.

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of ores that need energy-intensive processing.

(Superpower: Ross Garnaut, p 69,70)

We can process more of these ores here in Australia, using our fantastic renewable energy resources. This greening is already happening at the Whyalla Steelworks.

Our emerging green steel industry: Whyalla

A British businessman, Sanjeev Gupta, bought the failed Whyalla Steelworks in 2017 and kept it running with its 1,200 jobs. He saw the potential to produce green steel at Whyalla, even while electricity prices were high in SA. Now, he is moving on plans to:

  • build an electric arc furnace,
  • build the Cultana solar farm,
  • build the Playford big battery,
  • build pumped-hydro energy storage in an old iron ore mine,
  • make Whyalla one of the biggest steelworks in the western world, and
  • eventually make fully green steel, by ending the use of coking coal to strip oxygen from the iron ore.

Gupta, a foreign investor, was attracted to Whyalla by the prospects of processing our minerals with our renewable energy.

(Gupta doubles down on green industrial plans for Whyalla, powered by cheap renewables: Renew Economy: 10 Dec 2018)
(Gupta plans 3000MW of renewables to make hydrogen and so green steel: Renew Economy: 12 Aug 2020)
(We’re off and running to a carbon-free future: Gupta’s GFG Alliance: 26 Nov 2020)

Jobs via green steel

A Grattan Institute report “Start with Steel” says:

  • the federal government should fund a zero-carbon steel-making project,
  • the export of green steel could be as big as our current coal exports,
  • this export could generate tens of thousands of jobs, and
  • these new jobs would be in regions where fossil fuels jobs are declining.

(How green steel could replace Australia’s coal industry and end the climate wars: Renew Economy: 10 May 2020)

Renewable energy export via processed minerals

Processing minerals uses a lot of electricity. So, when we export processed minerals, like steel and aluminium, we also export the energy used to mine, process and transport it: the embodied energy.

Smelting aluminium uses about 13% of Australian electricity. Aluminium is like solid electricity, so exporting aluminium is an efficient way of exporting renewable energy.

Australia already exports significant amounts of renewable energy via processed minerals like aluminium and zinc.

Renewable energy use and Mineral processing

AreaRenewablesMineralRenewables Goals
ACT 100%*************************
Tasmania96%***********************Al, Zn200% by 2040
S Australia 52%*************100% by 2030
Victoria24%******Al50% by 2025
W Australia21%*****
NSW17%****AlRenewable Energy Zones
Queensland14%***Al, Zn50% 2030
N Territory 4%*
Table: Renewable energy use, goals, and mineral processing

(All except the “minerals column” of this table is discussed on another page: see “Renewable energy is substantial and surging”.)

Green Aluminium

The “Al” on the table marks Australia’s four aluminium smelters, one in each of Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales & Queensland.

In 2019, the Tasmanian Bell Bay Aluminium smelter was running on 96% renewable electricity and exporting about 78% of its aluminium, so were already exporting green aluminium from Tasmania. Tasmania is now running on 100% renewables, so this aluminium export now carries more renewable energy.

(A submission By Bell Bay Aluminium to the Productivity Commission inquiry into Tasmanian Shipping: 2013)

Our mainland renewable generation is increasing. As this happens, the mainland aluminium producers are becoming greener aluminium producers.

Australia is developing a green aluminium industry & exporting an increasing amount of renewable energy via aluminium exports.

Aluminium smelters as batteries

Our aluminium smelters provide (1) high-quality jobs, (2) export income, (3) a way of exporting renewable energy, and (4) they could become virtual batteries. In Essen in Germany, they have upgraded one aluminium smelter so it can vary its electricity demand and act as a giant virtual battery. We could upgrade our smelters and pay them to flexibly alter their enormous electric use to balance supply and demand. Simon Holmes-a-Court argues that managing electricity demand like this would be far cheaper than building the “Snowy two” pumped hydro storage. Australia should try to keep its Aluminium smelters.

(Costs of using an aluminium smelter as a battery verses Snowy 2: Lighter Footprints: Simon Holmes à Court: 22 May 2020)
(Smelters could lead the switch to renewables by acting as giant batteries: Renew Economy: 15 September 2020)
(Australia’s aluminium sector is on life support. It can and should be saved: Guardian: Simon Holmes à Court: 31 Oct 2019)

Green Zinc

The “Zn” on the table marks Australia’s two zinc smelters, one in Hobart Tasmania, and one Townsville Queensland.

The Nyrstar zinc smelter near Hobart in Tasmania is one of the biggest smelters in the world. It’s powered by Tasmania electricity which was 96% renewables in 2019 and has now reach 100%.

We also refine zinc at Sun Metals in Townsville, Queensland. Sun Metals has its own solar farm, so the smelter uses about 22% renewable energy, which is more than the 14% renewables supplied in Queensland. Also, the refinery has committed to 100% renewals by 2040.

(This is a tipping point: Queensland zinc refinery commits to 100% renewables: Renew Economy: 23 Nov 2020)

Green Manganese

Mining company “Element 25” has plans for a green metals export project, the Butcherbird manganese project, near Newman in WA. They propose to mine the manganese ore & use 90% renewable energy from their microgrid to refine it, using new CSIRO technology.

It’s another commercial plan for producing green metals in Australia.

(Element 25 lands finance to pursue Australia’s first green metals export project: Renew Economy: 18 Mar 2020)

Related pages

Updated 4 December 2020