Prove your humanity

Alcoa is officially moving its headquarters back to Pittsburgh at a time when worldwide sales of aluminum are on the rise. This is happening, at least in some part, because there can be environmental benefits of using aluminum instead of other metals in some products. But there’s a dirtier side to aluminum: the process of making it. The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant looks at the emerging demand for “greener” aluminum.

In 2015, Ford kicked off a battle in the U.S. auto industry. The body of its iconic F-150 truck went from being made of steel to being made of aluminum. Ford touted the benefits of aluminum in its advertising. Its lighter weight shaved 700 pounds off the F-150, improving fuel efficiency, and reducing tailpipe emissions.

Then the competition fired back. Chevy ran a whole aluminum versus steel ad campaign, calling Ford out for using a material they claimed was weak and not fit for trucks. But it was only a matter of time until Chevy was forced to change their tune. By the next year, they were also using aluminum instead of steel.

GM dumped 55 landscaping blocks into the beds of Chevrolet and Ford pickups to see how much abuse they could take. (Photo: Chevy / YouTube)

Industry analysts expect more U.S. automakers to significantly increase their use of aluminum in the coming years.

One reason is that despite President Trump’s decision to halt new fuel efficiency standards, California and 12 other states are moving forward with tougher regulations, as are Europe and other countries around the world.

LISTEN: “The Emerging Demand for “Greener” Aluminum”

Christine Keener, vice president of commercial sales at Alcoa, says aluminum will help these efforts.

“It’s lightweight, it’s durable, it’s corrosion resistant, formable. And because of all of those wonderful properties, it’s used in planes, cars, trucks, buses, trains, buildings, making all them more energy efficient, as well as reduce greenhouse gases as a result.”

This means the finished products – the trucks, buildings, and iphones – are friendlier to the climate.

Under the Paris climate agreement, nearly 200 countries are pushing to reduce their carbon footprints. President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of that accord, but automakers and the electronics and packaging industries still face pressure from regulators, investors and consumers who want them to reduce carbon down their entire supply chain.

And that’s one area where aluminum is on shakier environmental ground. Producing it uses a lot of energy and emits a lot of greenhouse gases. For each ton of steel produced, 2 tons of carbon is emitted. And for each ton of aluminum, the worldwide average is 11.7 tons of carbon emitted, nearly 6 times as much. But Keener says not all aluminum is equal.

“If you look at Alcoa’s total purchased electricity, 71 percent came from renewable sources in 2016,” she says.

The amount of coal-powered aluminum production has more than doubled since 2005, largely because of China’s expansion into the market.

Alcoa along with Rio Tinto, and aluminum maker based in London, both hold significant renewable hydro-electric capacity. And while hydropower dams have been known to flood the lands of native people and wildlife habitat, it has a lower impact on the climate than coal power.

So, both companies see this a market opportunity.  

Last year, Alcoa introduced a new sustainable line that includes a premium-priced product guaranteeing that each ton of aluminum produced creates less than 2.5 tons of carbon emissions. That’s an emissions ration about 75 percent better than the industry average, Keener says.

While demand is still relatively low, it’s growing. The Aluminum Stewardship Initiative is a group of producers and manufacturers –  including Alcoa and Apple –  working to create an industry-wide certification for sustainable production. Like many certifications, this is a way for a small percentage of producers to differentiate themselves. Fiona Solomon is the chief executive of ASI, based in Australia.

“We’re not just creating a label so someone over there gets a premium,” she says. “We actually want to see that adopted broadly, for it to become a mainstream expectation.”

Solomon says they expect to start certifying aluminum production by the end of this year.