Rise of green ferro-alloys in China led by lower electricity costs; challenges remain

There are more opportunities being created for the Chinese ferro-alloys industry on the back of China’s focus on sustainable development goals and the rising availability of competitively-priced green electricity, sources told Fastmarkets

The development of green ferro-alloys has been increasingly adopted by the Chinese ferro-alloys industry, but challenges remain in expanding the use of green electricity, which is produced from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro with zero or near zero carbon dioxide emissions, as opposed to thermal coal, sources said.

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Electricity consumption in ferro-alloys smelting

The energy-intensive ferro-alloys industry is a major contributor of emissions, so it is a key focus for government-driven green development plans in China.

Around 8,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity is needed for 1 tonne ferro-silicon produced, while around 4,000 kWh of electricity is required for 1 tonne of silico-manganese produced and 3,700 kWh of electricity for 1 tonne of ferro-chrome produced, sources said.

China produced 34.65 million tonnes of ferro-alloys in 2023, up by 1.4% from 34.17 tonnes in 2022, according to data from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics.

“The current use of green electricity only accounts for 10-30% of total electricity consumption in the Chinese ferro-alloys industry,” one silico-manganese smelter producer source said.

“The annual growth of ferro-alloys production in China translates to a higher demand for electricity, that is why it is necessary to introduce and widen the use of green electricity in the industry,” the producer source added.

“The use of green electricity will reduce the production cost for ferro-alloys and lower the energy intensity of smelters, as well as even promote the development and utilization of green electricity in China,” an industry expert said.

Higher availability and lower costs of green electricity

The cumulative installed power generation capacity in China stood at 2.92 billion kWh in 2023, with installed power generation capacity of new energy surpassing that of thermal power for the first time.

The installed generation capacity of green electricity came in at a record high of about around 90 million kWh in 2023 in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region which is the biggest production hub of ferro-alloys in China.

“The vast Inner Mongolia has wind, solar, coal and power capacity and it has the ability to provide enough green electricity for its 13 million tonnes of ferro-alloys capacity,” one smelter source in the region said.

Green electricity has also become cheaper compared with traditional electricity over the past decade, raising its attractiveness for ferro-alloys smelters in China to adopt, sources said.

“The average price of electricity is 0.39-0.54 yuan per kWh in Inner Mongolia, and it is much cheaper than the 0.57-0.65 yuan kWh in southwestern Guangxi, where green electricity is not easily accessible,” the Inner Mongolia-based source said.

“Power costs account for approximately 60% of total ferro-silicon production costs, and so ferro-silicon production costs will be lower with a greater use of green electricity in ferro-silicon production, which will in turn make our ferro-silicon products more competitive than others,” a ferro-silicon producer in the Qinghai province said.

“Take our company as an example, if green electricity occupies a third of total power usage in ferro-silicon production, the average power costs will be 3 cents cheaper per kilowatt-hour than that of non-green electricity ferro-silicon production,” the Qinghai-based source added.

Challenges remain in the storage of green electricity

“The use of green electricity does not only bring about economic benefits, but it also helps to improve the reputation and competitiveness of smelters in the industry,” a ferro-manganese smelter source said.

But the adoption of green electricity has been hampered by challenges in the storage of such energy, sources said.

“The biggest challenge when it comes to green electricity is how to efficiently store it because having a constant power supply is vital since ferro-alloys smelting cannot stop,” a second silico-manganese smelter in Inner Mongolia said.

“A major obstacle preventing green electricity from being applied in ferro-silicon production is the high costs for energy storage, since producers have to pay more to store wind and solar energy, especially on cloudy days or days with no wind,” a third ferro-silicon producer source in Inner Mongolia said.

“But I am confident that advancements in energy storage technology may help ferro-silicon producers save costs in the future, it will take some time but at least we know the use of green electricity used in ferro-silicon production will only continue to grow,” the third Inner Mongolia-based producer source added.

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