Clean Manufacturing Leadership Will Power Economic Growth

Today, President Obama kicks off National Manufacturing Day to celebrate the economic benefits that flow from America’s leadership in manufacturing. From transportation to communications to health care, manufacturing has improved livelihoods, provided jobs, and boosted economic growth. As we celebrate manufacturing as a source of strength, the pressing challenges of climate change present a new opportunity for the United States to take the lead in manufacturing fuel-efficient transportation and clean power sources.

Climate change risk may be the catalyst, but the conversion to clean sources of power, fuel-efficient transportation, and the retrofitting of our nation’s manufacturing facilities, hospitals, schools, and buildings to make them more energy efficient will also stimulate meaningful economic growth and significant job creation and retention.

In the United States, there were 769,000 people employed in the renewable and alternative energy sector last year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. And employment in three sectors — solar, wind and biofuel — tripled from 2006 to 2012.

Some will find it odd that a business leader from a mining and metals company and the president of its largest North American union have a common view of climate risk and many of the changes required to address it. It’s actually simple: Beyond our shared concerns for the health and public safety risks of climate change, its effects also jeopardize the interests of shareholders and workers alike. But the conversion to cleaner power sources, fuel-efficient transportation, and other efficiency measures will depend on the “old” products and skills of the mining and metals sector.

Consider aluminum, one of the world’s most versatile and environmentally-friendly metals (particularly when it’s made from hydro power). Increasingly used in cars, trucks and planes, aluminum is making them lighter and more fuel efficient. In the auto sector, weight displacement with a kilogram of aluminum can save 20 kilograms of CO2 emissions over a vehicle’s lifetime.

Another metal critical to clean power is copper. Long a staple of the industrial age for its energy efficiency, copper plays a big role in solar panels and wind turbines. A single wind turbine that delivers 1.5 megawatts of power requires 1,900 pounds of copper. And copper’s electrical and thermal conductivity are also essential to the collection, storage, and distribution of solar energy.

Copper has one other valuable attribute: It can be recycled over and over without sacrificing any of its valuable properties. About 550 million tons of copper have been produced since the start of the 20th century, and about two-thirds is still in use.

Steel is being produced more efficiently and with drastically fewer emissions in U.S. plants. American-produced steel — which is the backbone of our transportation sector and our nation’s buildings and critical infrastructure — operates with the lowest energy consumption per ton of steel produced in the world. Since 1990, the North American steel industry reduced the CO2 intensity per ton of steel produced by 37 percent. Advanced domestic metallurgical applications are making further strides in lowering climate impacts of steel production.

There are also “new” minerals and metals that clean power manufacturers are asking the mineral and metals sector to prioritize for development. From lithium to scandium, materials innovators are scouring the periodic table for minerals that will make vehicles lighter and more energy efficient, extend the power of batteries, or provide stronger materials for new manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing.  

The Obama administration has demonstrated leadership by investing in applied research to discover the materials that facilitate clean technology product development. The Critical Materials Institute, a public-private innovation hub at the Department of Energy, harnesses the research power of national labs in partnership with companies like Rio Tinto, to find ways for the United States to leverage its natural mineral resources to advance clean technology manufacturing. Rio Tinto, with the support of United Steelworkers operational leaders at our Kennecott copper smelter in Utah, is partnering with CMI to uncover better ways to extract “new” minerals and metals — that are key inputs for clean tech manufacturing — from the “old” process of copper smelting, which continues to evolve and improve.   

Finding new ways to access the mineral wealth of the United States is important because today the U.S. imports more than 50 percent of the 41 metals and minerals key to clean technology applications. Even in copper, where the U.S. has ample domestic resources, the U.S. has become dependent on imports for 36 percent of its refined copper needs. Twenty-five years ago, the United States was a net exporter of refined copper. This dependence is likely to grow: While demand is expected to increase, domestic supply is limited by the fact that there are only three operating copper smelters in the U.S., and a shrinking number of high-grade copper mines.  

Climate change is an issue that we should embrace, not ignore. The conversion to cleaner sources of energy, fuel efficient transportation, and increased industrial and building efficiency presents a unique and timely opportunity for a new generation of U.S. manufacturers. Realizing the full potential of these “new” technologies will depend on maximizing “old” inputs from the mining and metals sector. With the right investments and the right leadership from the public and private sectors, this marriage of old and new can deliver positive climate change results as well as economic growth and job creation and retention.


Hugo Bague is group executive for organizational resources at mining and minerals company Rio Tinto. Leo W. Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union.

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