“Fossil-Free” Energy: India’s Aluminum Industry In Peril

From MasterResource

By Vijay Jayaraj — September 28, 2021

“Aluminum smelting requires uninterrupted power supply for production, which can be met only through in-house captive power supplies. The reduction in coal supplies, without any advance notice, has brought the industry to a standstill as it has been left with no time to devise any mitigation plan to continue sustainable operations.” (Aluminum Association of India, below)

Sometimes it’s not easy to follow up your words with actions. This is particularly true when a large economy based on fossil fuels is threatened by an anti-energy mentality trying to substitute dilute, intermittent energies for dense, reliable ones.

This incongruency has hit India, the world’s third largest emitter that is predicted to register the highest energy demand growth in the next 20 years.

A Fossil-less Utopia?

Nations around the world are under pressure to promise unprecedented cuts in fossil fuel consumption at the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26).

Echoes of this were heard this week at the UN General Assembly in New York, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked countries to “grow up” and tackle climate change.

But what the political leaders do not realize is that sustaining modern civilization requires continued use of fossil fuels to meet some, if not almost all, of our most basic needs.

Coal Crunch Hits a Post-COVID Economy

India calls itself a leader in renewable energy. It leads the international solar alliance. But little did it know that wasting precious resources on wind and solar would come back to haunt it so quickly.

After India’s second wave of COVID-19, its economy reopened, and power demand surged. Operational coal plants—usually fully stocked—began running out of inventory (66% lower than previous year).

This meant other industries dependent on coal, like the aluminum industry, were allotted less coal. Bloomberg reported that “about 83% of Coal India’s daily shipments are currently being sent to power plants, compared with about 75% usually.”

Aluminum Industry’s Warning Bell

India’s aluminum industry is a key part of its economy. Various sectors like power, automobiles, construction, packaging, aerospace, defense, high-speed rail, and consumer durables are dependent on aluminum. Construction, in particular, is highly dependent on this “recyclable, corrosion-resistant, and durable metal.”

Though India imports a considerable proportion of its aluminum from China, its domestic production is key to providing the rest. But coal is the key energy source for smelting aluminum. Estimates suggest “one tonne of the refined metal requires about 14,500 units of electricity generated from burning 11.7 tonnes of coal.”

As per the Aluminum Association of India,

Aluminum smelting requires uninterrupted power supply for production, which can be met only through in-house captive power supplies. The reduction in coal supplies, without any advance notice, has brought the industry to a standstill as it has been left with no time to devise any mitigation plan to continue sustainable operations.

The AAI added:

Also, resorting to imports at such a short notice is not feasible. Any power outage/or failure (two hours or more) results in freezing of molten aluminum in the pots which leads to shutting down of the aluminum plant for at least six months rendering heavy losses and restart expenses, and once restarted it takes almost a year to get the desired metal purity.”

This month, the aluminum industry sent an SOS to the government, asking it to restore the supply of coal. Despite having an agreement for assured supply of coal, their needs were not met.

The aluminum industry could find a coal-crunch episode like this a regular event if the Indian government continues to increase the capacity share of renewable installations in the country.

The more money and time that are invested in renewables, the less will be invested in coal. Though the country has planned to increase coal production, its flirtation with wind and solar has and will divert precious resources that could otherwise have been used to improve coal infrastructure. Coal is critical to meeting energy demand in the future, both for the power sector and the aluminum industry.

The situation in India is a stark reminder to the rest of the industrialized world. The slip from abundance to deficiency is subtle and can easily happen when the share of unreliable renewables increases in the energy mix. It is also a reminder that coal is still king, the go-to source to meet high demand for 24/7/365, on-demand, reliable power—an indispensable resource for aluminum smelting.


Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for theCornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in Bengaluru, India. His previous posts at MasterResource can be found here.

4.9 24 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
September 28, 2021 10:12 pm

Actually you smelt aluminium with electricity, It doesn’t have to come from coal. hydro and nuclear are just as good.

Karl Baumgarten
Reply to  Leo Smith
September 28, 2021 10:47 pm

It takes heat, not electricity, to smelt aluminum. The electric stoves do run on electricity but the aluminum isn’t smelted by it, it’s smelted by the heat produced from the electricity. And if you use hydro or nuclear, they become unavailable for other uses. Coal works best, why mess with what works?

Ken Irwin
Reply to  Karl Baumgarten
September 29, 2021 12:46 am

No – it requires electricity to extract Aluminium from Bauxite – simply heating it doesn’t work – it is in fact a high temperature electrolytic process – sometimes referred to as “wet metallurgy”.
It requires a lot of electricity!

Last edited 1 year ago by Ken Irwin
Reply to  Ken Irwin
September 29, 2021 1:05 am

Aluminium is not extracted from Bauxite. Bauxite is chemically cleaned in the Bayer process where you get alumina (pure aluminiumoxyde) and “red mud” as results.
The purified Alumina is used for Aluminium production, but not the Bauxite with all the other “dirt” (Silica, Iron e.g.) in it.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Gerald
September 29, 2021 9:29 am

A distinction without a difference. Bauxite typically serves as the starting raw material for the production of aluminum. Without the bauxite, there would not be sufficient high-grade alumina. The Bayer Process is a step in the metallurgical process of beneficiating the ore, followed by the electrolytic refining that actually produces metallic aluminum.

It is not unlike most other metallurgical processes such as upgrading natural iron oxides, and then reducing the oxides to metallic iron while removing the silicates present. The pig iron is then further refined into steel by re-melting and carefully controlling the additives such as carbon.


Mike Edwards
Reply to  Karl Baumgarten
September 29, 2021 12:47 am

it’s smelted by the heat produced from the electricity”

Err – no.

Aluminium smelting is an electrolytic process. It is not achieved by heat. Yes, the cells are very hot – there is molten Cryolite & Aluminium in the cells – but the key reactions to reduce the Aluminium Oxide take place electrolytically on the Anode and Cathode in the cell.

You can heat Alumina all you like, but you will not produce Aluminium as a result.

Wim Röst
Reply to  Karl Baumgarten
September 29, 2021 12:53 am

Karl Baumgarten: “It takes heat, not electricity, to smelt aluminum.”

WR: To produce pure aluminum, electricity is needed and not just heat. The ore bauxite contains Al2O3.To get pure aluminum, electrolysis is needed to separate oxygen from aluminum. Electricity is needed continuously and quite a lot of it as well.

Last edited 1 year ago by Wim Rost
Reply to  Karl Baumgarten
September 29, 2021 12:57 am

Completely wrong. Aluminium is produced by reducing alumina (Al2O3) to Al and CO/CO2 by an electrolytic process in a cell surrounded by coke (C). Electricity is the main input, but the process takes place in melted alumina (with cryolite to reduce the melting point) at 8-900 degrees centigrade.

Reply to  Karl Baumgarten
September 29, 2021 7:51 am

dude, have you taken basic chemistry? It takes electrical current running through the bauxite (along with chems) to reduce the aluminum from it’s oxidized state.

Serge Wright
Reply to  Leo Smith
September 28, 2021 11:41 pm

I live about 100km from a smelter in NSW AU and they are always on edge in summer when we have a heatwave and concurrent wind drought, especially late in the day when the sun starts to set. Reason being is that the pots can’t be without power for more than a few hours, else the aluminium sets hard and destroys the pots, costing the plant mega bucks. These plants will be forced to close in any net zero RE countries and move to somewhere without RE to avoid the catastrophic risk of having the power fail. China will most likely pick up most of this business unless we rapidly move to nuclear. These smelters are also huge energy users. The one down here pulls 10% of power from the state’s grid, which supports 8.2 M residents. Bottom line is that these smelters need a very high availability and low cost supply, rather than a high cost one that strobes on and off with the wind and sun each day.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Serge Wright
September 29, 2021 12:37 am

Check out the Kitimat – Kemano … Alcan project in BC Canada. I believe it’s now called Rio Tinto (an Australian Company I think). I grew up in the ’50s hearing about this massive project.

Ed Fox
Reply to  Rory Forbes
September 29, 2021 11:08 am

Didnt they diverted a river with a tunnel under a mountain to provide hydro power? Before such things were verbotten.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Ed Fox
September 29, 2021 11:13 am

Yes they did … an exceptionally large tunnel at that. It was built in the old way … pre boring machines. I believe they dammed a river and diverted the lake reservoir through the tunnel.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Ed Fox
September 30, 2021 5:20 pm

They did and reversed the flow in a river to boot.

Reply to  Leo Smith
September 29, 2021 7:59 am

What it requires is constant availability and cheap. For that coal works best.

Andy Pattullo
Reply to  Leo Smith
September 29, 2021 12:46 pm

Coal is abundant, inexpensive and can be stored on site and used as needed. Neither hydro more nuclear meet those criteria. Nuclear is expensive partly due to overzealous regulation but also very high capital costs, hydro is limited to where you can build it and many locations have little potential. Both are part of large electricity grids which are increasingly prone to blackout failure due to increasing intermittent “renewable” sources – a disaster for an aluminum smelter when an unforeseen stoppage happens as when the power system collapsed in South Australia. So for a smelter coals is clearly preferable to grid power from nuclear or hydro.

Reply to  Leo Smith
September 29, 2021 5:44 pm

That didn’t work in Vancouver,WA USA lots of hydro power yet they shut down the smelter rather then keep supplying it with power. They were paid to close.

September 28, 2021 10:13 pm

First destroy your competitor.

September 28, 2021 11:11 pm

What to do about
BBC: China-Big spender or Loan Shark?
“China hands out at least twice as much development money as the US and other major powers, new evidence shows, with most of it coming in the form of risky high-interest loans from Chinese state banks.
The sheer amount of Chinese lending is startling. Not too long ago China received foreign aid, but now the tables have turned.
Over an 18-year period, China has granted or loaned money to 13,427 infrastructure projects worth $843bn across 165 countries.”

Reply to  Vuk
September 28, 2021 11:25 pm

The Chinese billion-dollar motorway leading Montenegro (country I originally came from) to nowhere
Due to a huge loan scandal, it’s now become the country’s highway to hell. 40 bridges and 90 tunnels are expected to be built and financed by the Chinese. However, the project has been hit by corruption allegations, construction delays and environmental tragedies. Today, out of the planned 170 kilometres, just 40 have been completed.
The motorway is one of the most expensive in the world. It’s financed by a loan from China. Paying back this money is creating problems. Is Montenegro now stuck in Chinese debt?

James H
Reply to  Vuk
September 28, 2021 11:46 pm

Yes, this is the belt and road initiative. China loans tons of money, more than countries could ever repay, for “infrastructure” (which I believe usually means corruption). Then, the money isn’t repaid and China basically can seize control of the countries’ resources.

Reply to  James H
September 29, 2021 12:19 am

That was the plan from the outset.
A PRC howto :-

new colonialism without firing a single shot and with perfect agreement for a new slave trade from the moment anyone accepts the “funny money”.

Reply to  James H
September 29, 2021 1:06 am

I worked in Mozambique over a few years and Chinese “infrastructure” projects used almost no local inputs. Everything was supplied from China, including large proportions of labour.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  Vuk
September 30, 2021 11:15 am

Maybe they should just tell the Chinese to take the road back… 😀

Peta of Newark
September 29, 2021 12:48 am

random thoughts…
I’m more than a little surprised that they’re using electricity coming from coal to smelt (‘electrolyse’ is more the proper word for the process) Aluminium.
It requires quite insane amounts of electricity – I recall 60kWh per kilogram of finished metal just to separate the Ally from the Oxygen it comes attached to, then another 30kWh to keep the electrolytic cells from freezing up
Accounting the conversion factors/efficiencies/inefficiencies, that turns into at least 30kg of coal per kg metal
Is India really that desperate for Aluminium – what they doing with it? (##)

Using the above as a preamble, Aluminium would theoretically make a pretty epic battery for cars.
If you could make an ‘Aluminium Fuel Cell’ using the metal plus Oxygen from the air, you’d get that 60kWh per kg back
Using that to push a little car along, with lets say 500kg battery as contemporary EVs seem to have would get you 100,000 miles of motoring. No recharging. No replacements. Nuffink

And if your little motor itself lasted that long, barely a 20 minute job to ‘refill’ it with a fresh slab of metal.
what’s not to like

## They don’t appear to be making cans to put fizzy pop into – India’s per capita Covid fatality rate was/is about one-third that of the US and UK – although they do have a lot of pre and actual diabetes. So what then, alloy-wheels for rick-shaws?
or Teslas?
mmmmmm, me gets it now……

Paul C
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 29, 2021 6:50 am

There has been more research done into static (grid stabilisation) batteries using liquid aluminium, as the insulation to retain the heat is less of an issue in a static installation for grid power. The aluminium is effectively refined again with each charge/discharge cycle, so should last almost unlimited cycles.

September 29, 2021 1:07 am

so there was no significant change in the power share between coal and renewables in India last year…

so the same amount of energy from coal, more or less, was required this year as in 2019…

and the only problem with that was that stocks of coal at power plants were 66% lower – something perhaps not unrelated to a pandemic.

How then has renewable energy contributed to a problem, when the problem is supply of coal ?

If India had been 100% fossil fuel powered, there would still have been the same issue!

Dave Yaussy
Reply to  griff
September 29, 2021 7:30 am

Not quite fair, Griff. Why were the coal stocks so low? When you decide to move away from coal, to signal your green virtue, the first signal you can send is your reduction in coal imports and supplies. That’s a lot easier than replacing the coal with some other power source, which requires planning and great expense.

India may be faulted for not rationally matching coal reduction with increases from other power sources, but the underlying driver is the insistence worldwide of doing away with coal. You may find that laudable, as I am sure many do, but it wreaks havoc on industry (and individuals) who require regular electric service.

Reply to  griff
September 29, 2021 8:03 am

So nice of griff to refute an argument that nobody made.
The article says absolutely nothing about how much power is being generated.
The entire article talks about coal stocks and how they are getting dangerously low.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  MarkW
September 29, 2021 9:37 am

Is the straw man in need of a brain?

Gary Pearse
Reply to  griff
September 30, 2021 5:27 pm

The argument is diversion of cash into ruinables that should have been spent on coal supplies

September 29, 2021 3:52 am

http://Www.Brilliantlightpowér.com is the way the world should go. It should be the present. Then oil is only needed for lubrication.

Reply to  Mortimer Zilch
September 29, 2021 4:52 am

That scheme violates known physics.

September 29, 2021 5:06 am

India has vast hydro-power potential which is ideal for aluminium smelting. They face the same problems tapping that potential as everywhere else.

September 29, 2021 5:51 am

It all worked well until the climate anxious hijacked everything and started imposing wind and solar. Emissions from power plants are not what they used to be, technology has moved on. We are not all China or India

Now it doesn’t work very well. I doubt it ever will again, now.

As George Monbiot – aka Moonbat – puts it

“‘Green growth’ doesn’t exist – less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe

We have no hope of emerging from this full-spectrum crisis unless we dramatically reduce economic activity. Wealth must be distributed – a constrained world cannot afford the rich – but it must also be reduced. Sustaining our life-support systems means doing less of almost everything. But this notion – that should be central to a new, environmental ethics – is secular blasphemy.”


Wealth must be distributed “

Lets hope Harry, Meghan, Kerry, DiCaprio and all the others get the memo.

Reply to  fretslider
September 29, 2021 9:03 am

“Sustainability” of all aspects of civilization and environments can only be achieved off the back of robust financial sustainability of economies.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  fretslider
September 30, 2021 11:20 am

When they talk about “redistribution” of wealth, they’re always talking about “redistributing” somebody ELSE’s wealth, not their own. I seem to recall Ms. Thatcher’s quote about socialism and “other people’s money” again…

September 29, 2021 6:28 am
September 29, 2021 6:41 am

The sooner and bigger the failures, the better.

September 29, 2021 7:57 am

And another economy crashes onto the shoals of energy reality.

Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7
September 29, 2021 11:35 am

I haven’t looked up more recent numbers but in 2014 the world made 53 million metric tons of aluminum at roughly 13 megawatt hours per tonne; 58% of that came from coal. A large smelting pot will consume around 200,000 amps at 3 VDC. I don’t think even Elon Musk has ever claimed that can be supplied from batteries.

Aluminum is a critical material for modern industrial civilization; commercial aviation is impossible without it.

John Pickens
Reply to  Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7
September 29, 2021 10:19 pm

And, aluminum is THE largest constituent, by weight, of solar PV panels.
Oh, the irony.

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  John Pickens
September 30, 2021 11:22 am

Once again, it bears repeating – “renewable” energy is 100% dependent upon fossil fuels for its existence. AND its backup, which they willfully ignore.

Reply to  Alan Watt, Climate Denialist Level 7
October 2, 2021 6:45 am

The most accurate way to characterize aluminium is to call it solidified electricity. No electricity, no aluminum. This is why it is so valuable as recycled material. Recycling avoids the electrically intensive refining process. But recycling will not provide the amounts that are needed in modern society.

September 29, 2021 5:54 pm

“The Republic has no need of prosperity!”

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by MonsterInsights