Some months ago I read that many aluminum manufacturing plants were attracted to Washington State during the 1930's and 40's. What made Washington so different from other states that these companies decided to move to the Evergreen State?

Washington has no prominent aluminum deposits, so I'm confused.


5 Answers 5


Aluminium refining requires huge amounts of electricity so plants are often sited close to things like hydroelectric dams or abundant supplies of coal or natural gas. Bauxite (aluminium ore) needs to be refined by electrolysis so it is very good way to make use of surplus off-peak high output electrical power and the costs of shipping the ore to the plant are trivial compared to the energy requirements to refine it.

Aluminium smelting is fairly unusual in that it specifically requires electricity rather than generic fuel such as coke and this is the main reason why it was so difficult and expensive to produce before the advent of high capacity electrical power generation.

This article suggests that Washington state does indeed have abundant hydro-electric power.

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    One might also note that the same economic incentive for siting aluminum smelters still exists today, allowing the small country of Iceland, with its abundant hydroelectric power, to become a leading producer of aluminum, as noted by Wikipedia: "There are currently three plants in operation with a total capacity of over 800,000 mtpy, putting Iceland at 11th place among aluminium-producing nations worldwide."
    – njuffa
    Oct 27, 2016 at 19:38
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    I like to say that the primary input in the smelting of aluminum is electricity, not bauxite (aluminum ore). Other examples of aluminum smelters placed close to hydro-electric sources and far away from bauxite mines are Kitimat, British Columbia and the 8 smelters in Quebec.
    – user19474
    Oct 27, 2016 at 20:16
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    Note that in the mid-19th century aluminum was so expensive that at Napoleon III's coronation, only the head table were served the expensive aluminum cutlery - regular guests received the much cheaper silver cutlery! Oct 27, 2016 at 20:53
  • @njuffa 65% of Iceland's power is geothermal and only 20% is hydroelectric.
    – stannius
    Oct 28, 2016 at 16:07
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    @user19474 In that case, the primary input of steel production is coal (especially historically). The exact same logic works - you need a lot more coal than iron for steel production, and steel mills were located close to coal mines, not iron mines.
    – Luaan
    Oct 28, 2016 at 17:54

Aluminum manufacturing is very energy-intensive and requires large amounts of electricity, which the other comments have covered.

Washington State and the Pacific Northwest has an abundance of inexpensive electricity due to the large-scale hydro-electric power projects installed from the 1930s through the 1970s. Examples include the Grand Coulee Dam, Chief Joseph Dam, Rocky Reach Dam, and more. Today the power distribution is covered by the Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes its generation to the local utilities.

As these major electrical producers came on line with relatively abundant and cheap electricity, it spurred aluminum refineries to be built in the area, which then fed refined aluminum to the local aircraft industries during and after WWII. The Seattle area had very significant activity in aircraft production (Boeing) and ship-building (numerous shipyards) during WWII. Aluminum refineries were also located in Spokane (Kaiser).

One could argue that this helped set up a technology, semiconductor and later software base in Washington, as each industry led to the other.

A side benefit is that the dam projects also irrigate central Washington, turning this desert area into highly productive farmland. This is called the Columbia Basin Project.

  • How did aluminum refining lead to laser software production in Washington? Oct 28, 2016 at 17:39
  • Note that the BPA doesn't just supply local utilities. A lot of PNW-generated power is shipped to California & elsewhere. See e.g. Pacific DC Intertie.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 28, 2016 at 17:44

This spurt of aluminum production in Washington had nothing to do with aluminum deposits. Rather, this was brought about by to dramatic changes—the beginning of World War II, and the opening of several large dams in Washington State. The abundance of hydroelectric power from recently built large dams (like the famous Grand Coulee Dam, the largest in the world at that time) aided the powering of aluminum factories in such cities as Vancouver, Tacoma, and Wenatchee. With the entrance of the United States into World War II, the demand for aluminum production also increased. (Most warplanes were built primarily of aluminum; the typical heavy bomber required 15000 pounds of that metal!) And since the foremost American producer of warplanes—Boeing—was located in Seattle, Washington was an ideal location for the placement of wartime aluminum factories.

  • Both cheap and renewable. Aluminum was at one time priced a thousand times higher than gold for even an ounce. There were many years going into World War 2 of an aluminum shortage but these fears proved totally unfounded. Today there is actually a glut of Aluminum so the cheap energy is a market necessity as the demand for Aluminum ingots simply is not there as it was during World War 2. Steel remains the dominant metal for production as it is far more malleable and far less energy intensive to create...and thus far cheaper. Also steel is 100% recyclable leaving Aluminum stuck in the soda pop Oct 27, 2016 at 21:50

Washington State is the home of the Columbia River, and its tributary, the Snake River.

The Columbia River is "only" the fourth longest river in the U.S., but it traverses the hilliest terrain. As such, it is the most suitable for building dams to generate hydroelectric power.

As another poster points out, hydroelectric power is more necessary to the smelting of aluminum than to other metals because it is the most "continuous" source of power.

In metals smelting, one needs several tons of coal (or its equivalent) to process one ton of metal, so access to power sources is more important than access to bauxite. Also, The Columbia River made it easy to ship bauxite to the mouth of the river, and then upstream.


Just to add: http://siteselection.com/ssinsider/snapshot/sf020916.htm

Alco help finance a majority of this hydro-dam as part of the requirments to produce aluminum there. I believe what ever they dont use as far the electricity generated. They bleed back into the grid to supply the communities and the dam remains in the Icelandic states control. Not a bad deal as working together is a great example. Instead of the money hungery nature of most today. ...Peace.....

  • 1
    What does a 2002 project in Iceland have to do with WW II - time Washington State?
    – user10082
    May 3, 2017 at 19:06
  • @Gerry - As near as I can tell, Aluminum is generally extracted from Bauxite, which Iceland also (like Washington) does not seem to have reserves of. So this is actually relevant, although text explaining that in the answer itself would have been helpful.
    – T.E.D.
    May 3, 2017 at 20:24

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