Rio Tinto’s interests in Gladstone include the Boyne Smelter (pictured), Yarwun and Queensland Alumina Limited.
Rio Tinto’s interests in Gladstone include the Boyne Smelter (pictured), Yarwun and Queensland Alumina Limited.

‘Early warning signal’: What aluminium tells us about energy

ENERGY prices and global market conditions continue to be challenges for the aluminium industry.

Rio Tinto has a large footprint in Gladstone. Its fourth quarter report for last year states it is working to enhance its smelters to "ensure sustainability and global competitiveness". It achieved an aluminium production of 3.2 million tonnes last year, 2 per cent lower than 2018.

Alumina production of 7.7 million tonnes was 3 per cent lower than 2018, which Rio said was due to maintenance activities at its Pacific refineries, including the planned five-year maintenance shutdown to service the cogeneration plant at Yarwun. Other interests in the region include the Boyne Smelter and Queensland Alumina Limited.

Australian Aluminium Council's executive director Marghanita Johnson agreed that the major challenge in Australia was the price of energy, especially in an environment that demanded global competitiveness. Because of the large energy requirement of smelters, she said the industry was like an "early warning signal" for issues with the Australian electricity grid at large.

"The problems facing the grid are not unique to smelting," she said.

In 2015, Boyne Smelters cut production by 15 per cent and made about 100 workers redundant after it could not reach a deal for 150MW of power. The industry is working with electricity generators, regulators and the Federal Government to develop long-term solutions. When asked about the concept of "green" aluminium, Ms Johnson pointed to the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative designed to assess and certify the responsible production, sourcing and stewardship of aluminium.

"A number of Australian sites have already been certified," she said.

A partnership between Rio Tinto and fellow global aluminium producer Alcoa has led to the formation of ELYSIS, a Canadian company "delivering a disruptive technology for the aluminium smelting industry". According to its website, ELYSIS technology eliminates all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process and emits oxygen as a by-product.