According to this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, Alcoa is trying to restart its Wenatchee aluminum smelter, which was idled during the electricity crunch of 2001.
During that summer, when electricity prices up and down the west coast shot up to absurd heights, most of the aluminum smelters in the Northwest shut down: they could make more money selling electricity back to the power grid than they could by using it to make aluminum. And aluminum smelting consumes a prodigious amount of electricity: in Washington state, the smelters used more than half of all industrial electricity, and when they closed, industrial electricity consumption collapsed:
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Energy consumption isn’t the only environmental impact of aluminum smelting. The most recent greenhouse gas inventory for Washington state shows that gases known as PFCs (or perfluorocarbons), which are a byproduct of the smelting process, were responsible for 4 percent of all warming emissions in the state in 2000. So that makes aluminum smelting a double whammy for the environment: it uses lots of energy, and produces climate-warming gases as a byproduct.
Given the high environmental impacts of aluminum, it might seem tempting to celebrate the closure of the smelters, and to rue their reopening. But that’s the wrong instinct. The real effort has to be put into reducing Northwesterners’ demand for aluminum, since our real contributions to the global problems of aluminum smelting are measured by how much aluminum we use, not how much is made nearby. Handing off the smelting process to some other part of the world might make some of us feel better—and might keep local electricity prices down. But it certainly doesn’t help the climate.
So if the smelter reopens, so be it. Just try not to buy your soda in aluminum cans.