Exporting renewable energy via refined minerals

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An efficient way for Australia to export renewable energy is to refine minerals using renewable energy and export those refined minerals, e.g., aluminium. Exporting the refined mineral also exports the embodied energy, the energy used in mining, refining, and transport.

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. As described below, Australia is developing green industries based on our renewable energy:

See: From Mining to Making: Australia’s future in zero-emissions metal: Energy Transition Hub: 2020.

Green steel

What is green steel

Green steel is steel made without also making carbon dioxide. Similarly, you can talk of green aluminium and green hydrogen.

Nearly all steelworks make steel from iron ore by mixing the ore with coking coal in a blast furnace and heating it to 1000 degrees C. This process generates 8 % of the global emissions of carbon dioxide. The good news is that there are a couple of ways you can make steel without making carbon dioxide: green steel. You can replace the coking coal with green hydrogen. Alternatively, you can blast the iron ore with renewable electricity.

Our emerging green steel industry in Whyalla

A British businessman, Sanjeev Gupta, bought the failed Whyalla Steelworks in 2017 and has kept it running with its 1,200 jobs. He saw the potential of producing 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 no longer using coking coal to strip oxygen from the iron ore.

Australian renewable and mineral resources are attracting energy-intensive industry.

(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)

Green steelworks planned by Fortescue.

** Major development **

Andrew Forrest has announced that Fortescue aims to start building a pilot green steel plant in 2021 in the Pilbara, WA. He says that Australia produces over 40% of the world’s iron ore and that gaining 10% of the world’s steel market would generate more jobs than the current coal industry.

Fortescue plans to use renewable energy for refining and its trucks, trains, and ships, so its steel’s embodied energy will be all renewable energy.

Fortescue will also invest heavily in green hydrogen.

(Oil versus water: confessions of a carbon emitter: ABC Radio: Boyer Lecture: Andrew Forrest: 24/1/2021: 30-minute podcast)
(Fortescue leads stampede into green energy with stunning plans for 235 gigawatts of wind and solar: renew Economy: 12 Nov 2020)

Table: Renewable energy use & 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

Smelting aluminium uses about 13% of Australian electricity, and people call aluminium “solid electricity”. This high energy content means that exporting aluminium is an efficient way of exporting renewable energy.

Australia already exports significant amounts of renewable energy via 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 we’re 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 to 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 a 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)

Industrialize with renewables

Australia is developing green industries based on our renewable energy and mineral resources:

  • Steel refining at Whyalla and in the Pilbara,
  • Aluminium smelting,
  • Zinc smelting, and
  • Manganese production.

Updated 15 Apr 2021