Coal power plants: Aluminium’s dirty little secret

by | Oct 6, 2020

Today we release 5 new graphics that show how the aluminium industry consumed 6% of all global coal-fired electricity in 2019 – more coal-fired electricity than is generated in the whole of Europe – and is actually becoming more reliant on coal at a time when the world is becoming less reliant on coal.

We analysed industry data, as published by the International Aluminium Institute (IAI), GHG Emissions Data for the Aluminium Sector (thank you for your data transparency). We also show which coal power plants are exclusively built to generate electricity to electrolyse aluminium, based on the latest data from Global Energy Monitor.

In total, the aluminium industry used 918TWh of electricity in 2019 for electrolysis, of which 588TWh was from coal power plants. This means aluminium electrolysis is responsible for 6% of all global coal power generation, which was around 10,000TWh last year, according to the IEA. This is more than all the electricity generated by coal plants in the EU-28 last year (470TWh, according to Ember’s EU Power Sector in 2019 report). Of that 588TWh coal-fired generation used in aluminium electrolysis, China consumed 72%, whilst producing 56% of the world’s aluminium.

Aluminium is getting dirtier

The dependence on coal has been getting worse: aluminium electrolysis rose from having 49% of its electricity from coal in 2006, to 64% in 2019. This was in a large part due to captive coal power plants built to fuel China’s new aluminium plants. Meanwhile, the total electricity sector actually reduced its reliance on coal, as more wind and solar power took market share (see Ember’s Global Electricity Review).

That means that aluminium’s carbon footprint is increasingly dominated by coal. In 2019 alone, coal-fired electricity used for aluminium electrolysis resulted in 636 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – 58% of the total carbon footprint of the aluminium sector. 

China dominates in coal-fired aluminium electrolysis

In China, coal-fired electricity that powers the aluminium electrolysis process resulted in almost half a gigatonne of CO2 emissions (460 million tonnes) last year.

In total, Global Energy Monitor – who track coal power plants globally – have identified 84GW of coal power plants that generate “captive” electricity for aluminium plants, 82GW of which are in China and India alone. The majority are lower-efficiency sub-critical coal power plants – 240 coal units, totalling 51GW of capacity.

How can aluminium go beyond coal?

In order to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, the IPCC’s research has shown that coal use needs to fall by about 80% globally by 2030. It’s clear the aluminium industry is off-track for its aims – research by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows what the aluminium industry needs to do. 

The answer is clear: The aluminium industry needs an urgent wake-up call to move from coal electricity to clean electricity in just the next 10 years, to give ourselves a good chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

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