Corona, supply problems and the Ukraine war: The European aluminum industry is facing enormous challenges.
Is the aluminum industry prepared?
In the coming months, there is a threat of even greater problems, also due to inflation and the high energy prices. In the medium and long term, however, the demand trend for aluminum remains on a growth course. Although there may be temporary bottlenecks in market supply as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war in Europe due to the sanctions, in the medium term the aluminum economy will stabilize again and grow. The trend toward lightweight construction in various areas of application is unbroken.
The global aluminum industry could actually look ahead with optimism. According to a study commissioned by the International Aluminium Institute (IAI), global aluminum demand will reach new highs by 2030 and grow by 40 percent. The aluminum sector will need to produce an additional 33.3 million metric tons to meet the growth in demand in the various industrial sectors - from 86.2 million metric tons in 2020 to millions of metric tons in 2030.
Aluminum demand is growing worldwide
The study "Opportunities For Aluminum In A Post-Covid Economy", conducted by market research firm CRU International on behalf of the International Aluminium Institute (IAI), details demand in key industrial sectors and regions in the post-Corona crisis economy. The top four sectors that will drive demand are transportation, construction, packaging and electrical. They account for 75 percent of total metal demand. Two-thirds of this growth is expected to come from China: 12.3 million metric tons will be needed there, with the rest of Asia adding another 8.6 million metric tons, North America 5.1 million metric tons and Europe 4.8 million metric tons. Together, these four regions alone will account for more than 90 percent of the additional aluminum needed worldwide.
According to the study, decarbonization policies and the shift away from fossil fuels in the transportation sector will lead to an increase in Electric Vehicle (EV) production to 31.7 million metric tons in 2030 (compared to 19.9 million metric tons in 2020).
Demand for renewable energy will also increase the need for aluminum for solar panels. The replacement of existing copper cables in the power supply with cables made of aluminum will also contribute to this. Overall, an additional 5.2 million tons will be needed in the power supply sector by 2030. In construction, another 4.6 million tons will be needed by the end of the decade. Urbanization will account for 44 percent of growth; Asia (excluding China) is responsible.
Demand for aluminum packaging will increase from 7.2 million tons in 2020 to 10.5 million tons in 2030, driven by the growing popularity of beverage cans in North America, Europe and China. Increasing demand for environmentally friendly packaging combined with new products is also responsible for this rise.
Aluminum industry needs affordable energy
As much as the look ahead is optimistic, the current challenges are a cause for concern. The main factors weighing on the industry are higher energy and raw material prices as well as physical bottlenecks, e.g. in metal supplies. Non-ferrous metals in particular, such as aluminum and nickel, are causing supply concerns due to the risk of supply shortfalls from Russia. The further course of the war, the development of energy and raw material prices, and possibly also a loss of Russian gas and oil supplies remain difficult to assess and therefore relevant current risks. Although the impact of the Corona pandemic has recently diminished significantly, the pandemic has not yet been completely overcome. Above all, there is a threat of further breakdowns in the supply chains if China continues its rigorous Corona policy and continues to seal off entire metropolitan areas from the outside world. Added to this is the fear of additional material and supply difficulties.
In the course of the Ukraine conflict, the already high costs for energy in Europe rose drastically once again. This is placing a massive burden on companies in the sector. Since the beginning of the energy crisis in the fall of 2021, the European aluminum industry has had to shut down around 900,000 tons of its primary production. So far, almost half of production in the EU27 has been curtailed. Downstream and recycling companies are also increasingly affected by rising energy prices, which have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Especially in the short to medium term, the transition from gas to alternative energy sources such as green hydrogen is hampered by infrastructural and technical constraints. For electricity-intensive primary aluminum producers in Europe, access to affordable and green electricity is now more than ever a matter of survival.
Text: Alwin Schmitt