Energy demand and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to produce new primary aluminum in the U.S. and Canada have dropped significantly – and impressively – over the last two decades, a new report reveals.

The thumbs-up news for the aluminum industry comes courtesy of perhaps its biggest supporter, the Aluminum Association, which claims that the energy needed to produce a single metric ton of primary aluminum had declined 11 percent since 2005 and 26 percent since 1995.

Likewise, the industry’s carbon footprint has also fallen, according to association officials, declining 19 percent since 2005 and 37 percent since 1995. This is the same as saving 37 million barrels of oil per year, the report says.

“For us, it’s not only good for the environment, it’s also good for business, because the primary driver of costs in producing aluminum is electricity,” the association’s director of communications, Matt Meenan, tells Leo Rommel of Industry Today.

“Any way we can find to reduce the input is kind of good on the business side and also on the sustainability side,” Meenan says. “And anything that drives lower energy prices is a benefit to our industry.”

The findings stem from a new, peer-reviewed life-cycle assessment (LCA) report sponsored by the said Arlington, Va.-based association, whose member companies operate about 180 plants in the U.S.

The multiyear analysis examines the environmental impact of modern aluminum production, Meenan says. It incorporates a review of the 2010 production year and data from 25 companies, representing 95 percent of primary metal production and the majority of the industry in the U.S. and Canada.

Various aspects of semi-fabrication and primary and second aluminum production are included in the report, and a third-party expert on life-cycle assessment reviewed the analysis to ensure conformance with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards.

“The industry is proud of the strides it has made in recent years to produce aluminum sustainably, and this new data underscores the results of our efforts,” Layle “Kip” Smith, president and CEO of Noranda and Chairman of the Aluminum Association, says.

Noranda is a leading North American integrated producer of value-added primary aluminum products and high-quality rolled aluminum coils.

“Infinitely recyclable, light-weight and strong, aluminum is not only a metal with countless applications but also the green material of choice in many markets,” Smith adds.

So, what’s triggering the industry’s new and improved greener ways? In essence, technological advances, Meenan says.

“You basically now have an industry filled with new and improving technology,” he says. “Some of the older facilities that relied more heavily on energy-intensive production processes have either shut down or they’re using more energy-efficient production processes.”

That’s one difference-maker, according to the association’s report. The other two raved about, hi-tech industrial improvements include:

  • The increased use of computerized process controls to lower electric power usage needed to produce primary aluminum;
  • The expanded use of renewable hydroelectric power sources for aluminum production, which has risen from 63 percent in the early 1990s to 75 percent today.

Meanwhile, the notable carbon footprint fall off, according to Meenan, is attributed to the voluntary effort undertaken by the industry in the early 1990s. Working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the industry has reduced emissions of perfluorocarbons (PFC), a greenhouse gas, by nearly 85 percent.

“It’s encouraging to see how aluminum producers continue to innovate to make aluminum even more sustainable,” Heidi Brock, the association’s president and CEO, says. “We can achieve significant environmental gains by substituting aluminum in more products and by increasing end-of-life recycling.”

Increasing recycling is another method to saving energy, the association says.

Not only is it a metal that can be recycled time and again without any loss in quality, according to the report, but a 2009 study makes evident that the continued “light-weighting of passenger vehicles with aluminum off-set fully 92 percent of the industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.”

Furthermore, aluminum roofs reflect up to 95 percent of sunlight. These considerably lower summertime attic temperatures and, by extension, air-conditioning costs.

Association officials also assert that aluminum can:

  • Improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles through light-weighting;
  • Increase energy efficiency in buildings;
  • Limit the carbon footprint of consumer goods, such as beverage containers.

This means that a 10 percent increase in end-of-life recycling rates decreased primary energy and greenhouse emissions by 15 percent, the report finds.

“We really want to continue emphasizing recycling,” Meenan says. “The more we recycle, the better opportunity we’ll have to improve the overall lifecycle impact of aluminum.”

Will the industry continue to make strides to improve technology and driven down energy usage? Yes, Meenan says.

“I think you will continues to see some significant improvements,” he says. “They may not be quite as dramatic as the ones we’ve seen in the last 20 years, but there continue to be improvements in various segments of production technology, and that will certainly drive down our energy use.”

About the Aluminum Association
The Aluminum Association, which is based in Arlington, Va., works globally to aggressively promote aluminum as the most sustainable and recyclable automotive, packaging and construction material in today’s market. The Association represents U.S. and foreign-based primary producers of aluminum, aluminum recyclers and producers of fabricated products, as well as industry suppliers. Member companies operate approximately 180 plants in the United States, with many conducting business worldwide.


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