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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Kárahnjúkar, all that glitters is not aluminum

On march 5th, 2003, Iceland's Parliament approved the construction of the world's largest hydro-powered aluminum smelter project, Alcoa's Fjarðaál ("aluminum of the fjords"). Designed and built by Canadian giant Alcoa, the plant is purported to be one of the most environmentally friendly yet productive aluminum facilities in the world. It will have an annual capacity of 322,000 metric tons and is expected to cost $1.1 billion upon completion.

The smelter will be powered by the newly constructed Karahnjukar Power Station (located on the NE coast) owned and operated by the National Power Company. Its production will ship from a new harbor facility at Mjoeyri constructed by the Fjardabyggd Harbor Fund. The combined project is one of the most extensive investments ever undertaken in Iceland and is expected to add significantly to the economic vitality of eastern Iceland.

Environmentalists have mounted considerable resistance to the development of the project with particular emphasis on the extent of the damage, which they perceive will impact the pristine environment surrounding the glacial run off fields as the project proceeds.

Advocates, and many Icelanders fall into that category, see an economic boon to the community and accept that some environmental impact is necessary in order to harness the great wealth of energy frozen in Iceland's scenic glaciers.

The first large dam, Kárahnjúkar, now complete, will begin supplying power to Alcoa's smelting plant this spring with full production to follow by year's end.

Alcoa, the world's largest aluminum manufacturer, has similar smelters on line in Australia, South America, Canada and elsewhere around the world accounting for nearly 90% of all aluminum manufactured today.

Most industrial nations agree that Alcoa makes a very sustainable product: almost 70% of the aluminum ever produced is still in use, that being about 480 million metric tons of the total 690 million metric tons manufactured since 1886 when the process was first achieved.

Before the Second World War the consumption of electricity in aluminum smelting averaged around 23.3 kilowatt hours per kilo of metal produced. Today, the most efficient pots (a term given to the "pot-like" vats in which alumina is smelted to produce aluminum) run at just over 13 kilowatt-hours per kilo. A kilowatt-hour (KWH) is the energy used burning a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours. A kilo of aluminum is just over 2 pounds - about the weight of a standard household roll of aluminum foil.

Calculate the formula and the result is that producing 2 pounds of aluminum requires the energy equivalent of burning a 100-watt light bulb for 1300 hours (55 days).

Icelanders, like any people, are entitled to develop a rigorous, productive economy capable of supporting their society as well as their culture. However, as with most human undertakings, the stakes may be high. Next week we look in more detail at the economy of "Aluminum and the other side of mining, the bauxite rush."

by Harlan Weikle
Greener Magazine

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