Steel Makers Discover Solar Power, And It Ain’t All Sweetness And Light


Oh the irony, it burns! Solar power is supposed to open the door on a new era in which humans and their ecosystems exist in harmony, but for now the record is still stuck on fossil energy. Oil, gas, and coal producers continue to dig up carbon from underground and disburse it about the surface, and solar power is becoming an enabler, providing power to operate — and equip — drilling sites and mines.

More Solar Power For Fossil Fuels

The use of solar power in the fossil energy industry should come as no surprise. After all, extractive energy sites need energy to operate, and the expense of building new transmission lines or ferrying fuel to remote locations can be formidable.

Solar power became the solution after the first practical solar cell was introduced in 1954. Oil producers were the solar industry’s leading customer by 1980, with an emphasis on use at offshore drilling sites.

Those early solar devices were limited in scale, but that changed as solar technology improved. Drillers began installing the first large-scale solar arrays for oil and gas operations in the US as early as 2003.

Alongside a sharp drop in the cost of solar cells, the scale of solar activity at drilling sites and mines has picked up significantly in recent years.

Fossil energy stakeholders have begun leaning on solar power and other renewables to fend off critics with new pledges to reduce carbon emissions. However, when fossil energy stakeholders pledge to decarbonize, they mostly mean reducing carbon emissions from operations under their direct control. Once their product reaches the marketplace, it’s a different story.

In effect, renewable energy is giving fossil energy stakeholders license to keep pumping out more product, exploring more sites for extraction, and building new pipelines, leaving energy consumers to hold the carbon emissions bag.

More Solar Power For Sustainable Steel

That brings us to the latest news about solar power and steelmaking. Steel is one of those tough-to-decarbonize industries, and steel is also the material that makes pipelines and other fossil energy infrastructure. Fossil energy stakeholders could give themselves many brownie points for transitioning their infrastructure to steel made with renewable energy.

For example, last year CleanTechnica was among those to welcome plans for a new solar array at the longstanding Rocky Mountain steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado. The mill is currently owned by the North American branch of Russia’s leading steel and coal producer EVRAZ, and the project has been developed by Lightsource bp, a joint venture between bp and the solar firm Lightsource.

Aside from enabling the mill to offset about 90% of its electricity with solar power, the project also helps to hasten the closure of the nearby Comanche coal power plant.

Why Rain On The Solar Parade?

At the time, the steel mill’s ability to churn out a new generation of extended-length rails for railroads was so exciting that we totally forgot to take a look at its other branches of its business. Our friends over at Colorado Public Radio report that the mill is also known for producing well casings, mainly for oilfields in Texas and North Dakota, in addition to producing steel pipe for, you guessed it, pipelines.

The cat’s out of the media bag now. Earlier this week bp announced that the new solar array, dubbed Bighorn Solar, is now up and running,

According to bp, the new solar array will have the carbon-reducing effect of “removing 92,100 fuel-burning cars from the road,” which is fine if carbon emissions from the mill were the only emissions in question. The bigger problem is that millions of carbon-emitting cars still rule the global roadways, and millions of car buyers are switching over to bigger vehicles that burn more gas.

That’s a problem for bp and EVRAZ, both of which have taken the opportunity to burnish their green cred by touting “the world’s first steel mill to be powered largely by solar energy,” while continuing along with their fossil energy operations.

“It is the largest on-site solar facility in the US dedicated to a single customer, with more than 750,000 solar panels providing nearly all the plant’s annual electricity demand,” bp enthused in a press release earlier this week. “This will enable the mill to produce some of the world’s greenest steel and steel products.”

Dave Lawler, chairman and president of bp America, piled on with this comment:

“Bighorn Solar shows us what the future of American energy can look like. Renewable energy can create a more sustainable, competitive business. Projects like this can make companies more resilient and protect 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! Just last summer, bp CEO  Bernard Looney seemed to be anticipating that the oil and gas industry would continue to be a leading customer for steel products, if not from the Rocky Mountain mill then from others. In a widely circulated interview with Bloomberg News, Looney foresaw a strong, continuing recovery in demand globally.

It’s Time To Get Serious About Decarbonizing

Looney is not alone. OPEC is also anticipating that oil demand will beat pre-pandemic levels by next year, and demand for coal is practically through the roof.

In terms of promoting a nice, green public image, that is a  problem for EVRAZ and bp. On its part, EVRAZ appears to be ready to resolve part of the problem. As of last January the company was reportedly mulling over the idea of spinning off its coal business to concentrate on steel making.

The sharp uptick in coal demand may have prompted EVRAZ to set those plans aside for now, but the idea could still be percolating. Vanadium is EVRAZ’s other main business branch, and that should help cushion the separation from coal, considering the growing market for vanadium in energy storage as well as steel making.

Last year, EVRAZ also launched a new vanadium R&D center in Switzerland, focusing on expanding its use in the steel industry. That still leaves the door open for fossil energy customers, but EVRAZ seems to have its eye on the growing demand for green steel by the auto industry, which is pivoting into battery electric cars as well as fuel cell electric trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles.

No such cushion is at hand for bp. The company is pretty much stuck tinkering around the edges of decarbonization while continuing to pump out oil and gas.

Still, cleantech investments by bp and several other fossil energy firms are not insignificant, and those that invest the big bucks on cleantech gain an important public relations edge over the others.

That could be the motivation behind two interesting solar power moves that bp made right in ExxonMobil’s backyard, the US. The biggest media play went to the company’s gigantic new 9-gigawatts solar acquisition in Texas, announced last June.

Less attention went to a 132-megawatt project in Arkansas, which bp also announced last summer. That sounds like peanuts compared to the Texas buy, and it is, but in the context of solar power growth in Arkansas it’s a huge step forward.

As of halfway through 2021, solar developers in Arkansas were drifting in the range of 12 megawatts or less. Activity finally began to scale up in 2019 after a sea change in the state’s solar policies. The Arkansas branch of Entergy was leading the way, and now bp has spotted an opportunity to stake its claim in a market ripe for rapid growth.

All else being equal, the surging cost of oil and gas for home heating should help juice solar activity in Arkansas and elsewhere, so stay tuned for more on that.

As for the Rocky Mountain steel mill, one day in the sparkling green future it will churn out less well casings and more parts for solar arrays, 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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