Aurubis Bulgaria is part of Aurubis AG, a leading international multi-metal producer based in Hamburg, Germany. In Bulgaria Aurubis operates the copper smelter plant near Zlatitsa and Pirdop in the region of Srednogorie. Tim Kurth is Chief Executive Officer of Aurubis Bulgaria and has been with Aurubis AG since 2006.
Mr Kurth, the Aurubis Group currently has a sustainability strategy that runs from 2018 until 2023 and the Bulgarian business surely does have some contribution to that and to the group’s overall goal of becoming carbon-neutral until 2050. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
First of all, yes, we have a long-term strategy and clear vision. We are linking all our main activities and projects to it and the entire organisation is committed. As you already stated, Aurubis goal is to become carbon-neutral by 2050 at the latest. We already implemented projects in the direction of the carbon neutral future. We have produced our first copper anode from hydrogen in our Hamburg plant. It was quite a successful first test. On the other hand, in the beginning of April Aurubis Bulgaria commissioned our first photovoltaic plant at our production facility between Pirdop and Zlatitsa - “Aurubis-1”. It is a quite big facility, 10 MW, but it contributes only 2.5% of our electricity consumption. We have already in our pipeline the projects for two more photovoltaic parks. We should have Park 2 and Park 3 in proximity, and they should be operational in 2024.
In general, our plan in Bulgaria is to have 20% of our electricity consumption covered by renewable energy in 2030 and by 2050 this should increase to 50%. To be successful and to achieve those goals, we need to diversify our energy sources and to optimise our energy usage. For example, next year we will exchange one of our old-generation engines with a much more efficient one. Combined measures would achieve the goals you just asked about.
So, the first solar park should be operational imminently?
Yes. We hope that we would gain experience from the first solar park so that we can improve for the second and third one. We know the operation of such a park includes “success factors” – maintenance and upgrades with small things such as having green grass around the facilities, cleaning the panels regularly, identifying misperforming elements. We are also thinking about upgrading it with trackers so that the solar panels are moving a bit like sunflowers so that they can get much more energy at the beginning and the end of the day.
Turning to Aurubis’ core operations, raw materials are now kind of a hot topic, especially given the current geopolitical crisis and the need for sustainability of the supply chains. Last year, the European Union launched the Raw Materials Alliance and I imagine Aurubis is not only interested in that alliance but could also be at the forefront of policies that could be negotiated. Do you think Bulgaria is in the position to be part of that alliance?
Yes, definitely. Copper is the core of our business but group wide we are expanding our expertise as a multimetal supplier. Examples of our strategy are the acquisitions of companies in Belgium and Spain focused on multimetal technologies. They are now fully integrated within Aurubis Group, and we are learning a lot from each other. Furthermore, we are continuously investing in our site in Olen, in Belgium, and in Luenen, in Germany, where we are also extensively increasing our capacities. Additionally, this summer we will have our ground-breaking ceremony in Richmond, in the United States, for a recycling facility. We want to then transfer our knowledge from the US to locations in Europe.
Do you think Bulgaria has the raw material base to actually be included in this kind of alliance?
It depends on whether we are looking solely at Bulgaria as a sourcing country. In this context this would be a bit challenging, because this is a small market. The willingness and ability to recycle should also be considered and it would be difficult to get all the materials that such a facility would require. But if you are looking at the South-Eastern region, I think it is feasible, if all the neighbouring countries are included. Also, I believe the recycling quota in all these countries, including Bulgaria, will definitely increase and everyone now recognises that recycling is a very good source focused on future and we cannot work only on primary materials. Secondary materials should have an increasing role in that respect.
Okay, we have looked into the future, let us go back to the past and maybe to the present and the “new normal” and the obligatory COVID-19 question. Usually, when talking about ESG, the focus falls on sustainability in terms of environment but HR policies and keeping employees involved and satisfied is one of the ways of having sustainable operations. How did Aurubis Bulgaria’s policies change at the onset of the pandemic, apart from the obligatory “work from home”, where possible?
When COVID-19 started two years ago we were ready with our digitalisation project. We were able from the first day onwards to adapt our working model. We identified the departments and positions that really had to work on site and we implemented rotation working schedules for the others. All external visits were completely suspended. This way we also limited the risk for the employees on site. Honestly, I believe that we will continue to be stricter in terms of measures.
In addition to the work organisation, we recognised that this new reality was challenging and confusing for all of us. In this regards we organised psychological support via hotline for all our employees.
I believe we were flexible and adapted well to the pandemic reality. Currently we are establishing a new schedule for partial home office work as we feel that this feature makes the workplace more attractive.