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Less cost, less coal: why global rivals are killing Australian aluminium

By Tony Wood - posted Thursday, 20 March 2014

Alcoa's decision to close the Point Henry smelter, at a cost of almost 1000 jobs in Geelong and elsewhere, comes amid a perfect storm buffeting Australia's aluminium industry.

Point Henry will be the second of Australia's six aluminium smelters to close, after the demise of Kurri Kurri in 2012.

Implications for the industry, its workers and local communities are grave, and the situation is piling pressure onto state and federal governments already reeling from the shrinkage of other Australian manufacturing sectors. Where did it all go wrong?


A formerly world-class industry

The aluminium story weaves together three distinct plots. The first is one of an industry based on world-scale bauxite deposits, that built what were once world-class refineries and smelters, and at its peak employed more than 17,000 people. However, raw reserves are never enough and the Australian industry has seen the global sector change around it, with economies of scale achieved by offshore competitors throwing down a tough cost challenge.

The second plot is a classic study in government industry assistance that was once seen as sound strategic policy, but now looks like just another subsidy for an unsustainable industry.

The third and most recent plot revolves around the global challenge of climate change that means an electricity-hungry product like aluminium becomes a villain in countries where electricity generation is particularly emissions-intensive.

A question of competitiveness

Aluminium is produced in two stages: first, bauxite ore is refined into alumina, and this alumina is then smelted to produce aluminium. Alumina refineries tend to be located close to the resource, and Australia's refineries are generally well-located and commercially competitive. The recent exception is at Rio Tinto's Gove refinery in the Northern Territory, which will close this yearafter struggling with a move from high-cost oil to an alternative such as gas.


For Australia's smelters, the logistics are different. The raw material, alumina, can be transported relatively cheaply around the world. Aluminium smelting uses huge amounts of electricity, so the cost of that electricity is a key factor in the competitiveness of a smelter. Although China dominates global production, Australia has been among the top five producers in recent years.

When Australia's smelters were built they benefited from very cheap, long-term electricity agreements with government-owned power companies. These smelters were paying around half to two-thirds of the price paid by other large industrial electricity consumers. The result for aluminium producers was they could be in the top half or even the top quarter in terms of global cost-effectiveness.

In recent years, there have been big – and generally bad – changes. First, global aluminium prices have been sliding since early 2011, threatening the viability of those producers that were struggling to keep costs down. Second, liberalisation of Australia's electricity market has meant the end of subsidised power contracts. Market-based electricity prices push even the best-performing of Australia's smelters out of the top 25% of global competitiveness.

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This article was first published on The Conversation.

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About the Author

Tony Wood is the Energy Program Director at the Grattan Institute. Tony has deep experience in the energy sector. He worked at Origin Energy for 11 years, and was an adviser to the first Garnaut climate change review. He is also program director of Clean Energy Projects at the Clinton Foundation.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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