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 refined minerals, e.g., aluminium. Exporting refined minerals also exports the embodied energy, i.e., 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

In 2017, an overseas investor saw the potential at Whyalla of making zero-emissions steel using renewable energy, so renewables:

  • saved the Whyalla steelworks from closing,
  • saved at least 1,200 jobs,
  • stopped Whyalla, population 22,000, from becoming a ghost town,
  • opened the way for greater export of renewable energy: as the steel making uses more renewable energy, the steel exported from Whyalla will carry more renewable energy, and
  • opened the way for zero-emissions steel production, a new industry with a long-term future.

Our renewable energy is already revitalising our manufacturing sector.

Unfortunately, the UK Serious Fraud Office is investigating the Gupta Family Group, which runs the Steelworks. Regardless, green steel still has great potential, and other companies are pursuing this.

(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 region of 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.

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

(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

(For further discussion of this table, see another page, “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 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 high-quality jobs,
  • generate export income,
  • provide an efficient way of exporting our renewable energy, and
  • could become virtual batteries.

In Essen in Germany, they have upgraded one aluminium smelter to vary its electricity demand. When electricity is in short supply, the smelter can use much less electricity, and when there is plenty of electricity, it can use far more electricity. In doing this, it acts like 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 by varying smelter production rates 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)

The Tomago smelter pitch

Here is a 100-second pitch for climate action based on the Tomago smelter.

Australia can grasp a prosperous future with sustainable industries and jobs.

We can radically expand our industrial base, powered by our cheap renewable energy, and become a renewable energy exporting superpower.

For example, the Tomago smelter near Newcastle in NSW:

  • is Australia’s largest power consumer,
  • exports nearly all its aluminium, and so
  • exports the energy used to make the exported aluminium, including some renewable energy,
  • currently exports renewable energy amounting to 2% of NSW’s generation,
  • plans to be using 100% renewable electricity by 2029,
  • will then be exporting renewable energy amounting to 9% of NSW’s current generation, and
  • could be modified to become an efficient, giant, virtual battery.

The export of processed minerals is an efficient way of exporting renewable energy. Renewables will:

  • enable the smelter to keep its export markets as it will be :
    • making a desirable product, low carbon aluminium, and
    • keeping prices down by avoiding the border carbon levies planned by other countries,
  • save the smelter from closing
  • save over 1000 jobs, and
  • continue to sustain the local community.

As to our other aluminium smelters:

  • the Queensland & Victorian smelters also have this potential, and
  • the Tasmanian smelter is already running on 100% renewables.

Another similar opportunity is green steel. Three companies have their sights set on producing and exporting low carbon steel, a major new industry, employer, and way of exporting renewable energy.

Australia can industrialise and become a renewable energy exporting superpower.

Green Zinc

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

The Nyrstar zinc smelter near Hobart in Tasmania is one of the biggest smelters in the world. The smelter uses Tasmanian electricity, which was 96% renewables in 2019 and has now reached 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% renewable energy 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 2 August 2021