Steel Makers Discover Solar Power, It’s Not A Pretty Picture

Oh the irony, it burns! Solar energy is said to open the door to a new era in which people and their ecosystems exist in harmony, but for now the record still hangs on fossil fuels. Oil, gas, and coal producers continue to dig up carbon from underground and distribute it to the surface, and solar power is becoming a trailblazer that provides power to operate – and equip – drilling sites and mines.

More solar power for fossil fuels

The use of solar power in the fossil fuel economy should come as no surprise. After all, extractive energy sites require energy to operate, and the cost of building new transmission lines or transporting fuel to remote locations can be enormous.

Solar power became the solution after the first practical solar cell was introduced in 1954. Oil producers were the leading customer in the solar industry until 1980, with a focus on use on offshore drilling sites.

These early solar devices were limited in size, but that changed as solar technology improved. As early as 2003, Drillers began installing the first large solar systems for oil and gas companies in the USA.

In addition to a sharp drop in the price of solar cells, solar activity at drilling sites and mines has increased significantly in recent years.

Fossil fuel stakeholders have begun to rely on solar and other renewable energies to fend off critics with new promises to reduce carbon emissions. However, if fossil fuel stakeholders commit to decarbonization, it mainly means reducing CO2 emissions from operations under their direct control. Once your product hits the market, it’s a different story.

In fact, renewable energy gives fossil fuel stakeholders a license to keep pumping out more products, exploring more mining sites, and building new pipelines so that energy consumers have control over CO2 emissions.

More solar power for sustainable steel

Which brings us to the latest news on solar power and steelmaking. Steel is one of those hard-to-decarbonise industries, and steel is also the material that makes pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. The representatives of fossil fuels could gain many plus points for converting their infrastructure to steel from renewable energies.

Last year, for example, CleanTechnica welcomed plans for a new solar system in the long-standing Rocky Mountain steelworks in Pueblo, Colorado. The plant is currently owned by the North American subsidiary of Russia’s leading steel and coal producer EVRAZ, and the project was developed by Lightsource bp, a joint venture between bp and solar company Lightsource.

In addition to being able to offset about 90% of its electricity with solar energy, the project is also helping to accelerate the closure of the nearby Comanche coal-fired power station.

Why rain on the solar parade?

The ability of the steel mill to produce a new generation of long rails for the railroad was so exciting at the time that we completely forgot to take a look at the other business areas. Our friends on Colorado Public Radio report that the mill is also known for making drill pipe, mostly for oil fields in Texas and North Dakota, in addition to making steel pipe for, you guessed it, pipelines.

The cat is now out of the media bag. At the beginning of this week, bp announced that the new solar system called Bighorn Solar is now in operation.

According to bp, the new solar system will have the CO2-reducing effect of “taking 92,100 fuel-powered cars off the road,” which is fine if the plant’s CO2 emissions were the only emissions in question. The bigger problem is that millions of CO2-emitting cars are still ruling the streets of the world, and millions of car buyers are switching to larger vehicles that burn more gasoline.

This is a problem for bp and EVRAZ, who both took the opportunity to polish up their green credo by promoting “the world’s first steel mill that is largely solar-powered” while continuing their fossil fuel activities.

“It is the largest on-site solar system in the US dedicated to a single customer, with more than 750,000 solar modules covering almost all of the facility’s annual electricity needs,” raved bp in a press release earlier this week. “This enables the plant to produce some of the most environmentally friendly steel and steel products in the world.”

Dave Lawler, Chairman and President of bp America, added this comment:

“Bighorn Solar shows us what the future of American energy could be. Renewable energies can create a more sustainable and competitive business. Projects like this can make companies more resilient and secure jobs through the energy transition. And it’s another example of how bp is working to help the US and the world reach net zero by 2050. “

Do tell! As recently as last summer, bp CEO Bernard Looney seemed to assume that the oil and gas industry would continue to be a leading buyer of steel products, if not from the Rocky Mountain plant, then from others. In a widespread interview with Bloomberg News, Looney predicted a strong, sustained recovery in global demand.

It’s time to take decarbonization seriously

Looney is not alone. OPEC also expects oil demand to surpass pre-pandemic levels by next year and demand for coal to virtually go through the roof.

In terms of promoting a beautiful, green external image, this is a problem for EVRAZ and bp. For its part, EVRAZ seems ready to solve part of the problem. The company reportedly considered outsourcing its coal business last January to focus on steelmaking.

The sharp rise in coal demand may have prompted EVRAZ to put these plans aside for the time being, but the idea may still trickle down. Vanadium is the other main business line of EVRAZ, which should help cushion the separation from coal given the growing market for vanadium in energy storage as well as steelmaking.

Last year EVRAZ also opened a new vanadium research and development center in Switzerland, which focuses on expanding its use in the steel industry. This still leaves the door open for fossil fuel customers, but EVRAZ seems to be keeping an eye on the growing demand for green steel from the auto industry, which is turning into battery-electric cars as well as fuel-cell electric trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles.

Such a cushion is not available for bp. The company is pretty much on the verge of decarbonization while continuing to pump out oil and gas.

Still, cleantech investments by bp and several other fossil fuel companies are not insignificant, and those who invest the big bucks in cleantech gain an important public relations advantage over the others.

That could be the motivation behind two interesting solar power movements that bp carried out right in the backyard of ExxonMobil, USA. The biggest media game went to the company’s gigantic new 9 gigawatt solar acquisition in Texas, announced last June.

A 132 megawatt project in Arkansas that bp announced last summer received less attention. That sounds like peanuts compared to buying in Texas, and it is, but in the context of Arkansas’ solar power growth, it’s a big step forward.

In mid-2021, solar developers in Arkansas were in the 12 megawatt range or less. After a fundamental change in the state’s solar policy, activity finally began to pick up in 2019. Entergy’s Arkansas office was groundbreaking, and now bp has recognized an opportunity to assert itself in a market that is ripe for rapid growth.

If all else is the same, the rising cost of oil and gas for home heating should help increase solar activity in Arkansas and elsewhere, so stay tuned to find out more.

Rocky Mountain Steel Mill will one day in a sparkling green future produce fewer well housings and more parts for solar systems, wind turbines and electric vehicles, but today is not that day.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar power for Rocky Mountain Steel Mill courtesy of BP via prnewswire.

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