In yet another sign that the global economy can survive without breaking the Earth, a gigantic steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado is getting a renewable energy makeover with a spanking new 300-megawatt solar power plant. The developer, Lightsource bp, cites the “competitive price of solar energy” as a factor that will keep the mill humming for years to come and save jobs for 1,000 local workers, to boot. As for coal jobs, not so much. The new PV plant will help smooth the way to retiring Colorado’s largest remaining coal power plant.
Renewable Energy Sprouts At Historic Steel Mill, With Railway & Recycling Angles
The steel mill in question is the EVRAZ North America’s Rocky Mountain Steel facility, which is getting the new $285 million solar array in tandem with a $480 million upgrade. That’s welcome news for the City of Pueblo, which has dubbed itself the “Steel City of the West” on account of its 150-year history of steel making.
In an interesting sustainability twist, renewable energy is not the only green factor in play. The modernization project involves replacing the facility’s World War II-era rail production line with a system capable of spitting out longer rails, measuring up to 1/4 mile long each.
If that sounds pretty long, it is. Rail lengths have been getting longer and longer since the old days of the clickety-clack era. Longer rails translate into fewer welds and a lower risk of derailment, which means that trains can go faster and haul heavier loads. All else being equal, anything that’s good for rail transportation is good for the sparkling green economy of the future.
EVRAZ is already sitting in the catbird seat for a green railway makeover in the US. The Russia-headquartered company bills itself as North America’s leading producer of rail, and also “the largest producer of large-diameter (LD) pipe and a leading producer of steel plate.”
To ice the renewable energy cake, the Rocky Mountain Steel facility is essentially a mega-scale recycling operation, reclaiming steel from scrapped cars and other sources to make new products.
Biggest Behind-The-Meter Solar Power Project In The US
EVRAZ’s so-named Bighorn Solar Project (300 MW DC / 240 MW AC) will be located mostly on the existing grounds of the steel mill, putting it right up there with the biggest on-site, single-customer solar arrays in the US. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s another way of saying it’s one of the biggest behind-the-meter solar projects in the US so far, if not the biggest one.
Under the development deal, Lightsource will sell the clean kilowatts to Xcel Energy, and in return EVRAZ — which is Xcel’s largest retail customer — gets a fixed price on electricity for 20 years. It seems that no more guesswork over the ups and downs of the commodities market is a good thing.
EVRAZ is quite clear on the bottom line benefits to itself, Xcel, climate management, and the future of steel employment in the area.
“With its 20-year, fixed rate structure, the project provides EVRAZ North America with predictable electricity prices and allows the mill, which employs about 1,000 workers, to stay in Pueblo and invest in its future,” EVRAZ explains. “The project supports the broader Colorado Energy Plan, which will deliver 55% renewable energy to the grid by 2026 and reduce carbon emissions by 60%, as well as Xcel Energy’s bold vision to deliver 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. Construction is expected to be completed by 2021.”
Renewable Energy Reality Check For Coal Voters
The solar project will offset about 90% of the mill’s electricity use, which is why reporter Allen Best of the local news organization Mountain Town News is calling it “the world’s first solar-powered steel mill” (follow that link to support local journalism!).
Best also notes how the new solar array will ease coal out of the picture. “The solar farm will also help Xcel achieve 55% renewable penetration in its Colorado electrical supply by 2026,” he reports. “By then, two of the three coal-fired Comanche units that serve as a backdrop for the steel mill will have been retired.”
If there are any coal voters left in the US, the Lightsource deal also suggests why they may want to focus their attention on other issues. The idea of saving coal jobs in the US was all hot air in 2016. It made sense only if you ignored the crashing sound of low cost natural gas smashing its way through the power generation landscape. With renewables on the rise, even the Commander-in-Chief has give up the idea of reviving the US coal industry.
Best cites Lightsource Americas’ chief executive Kevin B. Smith, who explains that “the long-rail mill is a go on the basis of the EVRAZ-Xcel Energy long term electricity agreement for cost-effective electricity.”
“Xcel was able to provide that cost-effective pricing on the basis of the Lightsource BP solar project on the EVRAZ site, which provides cost effective energy to Xcel under a 20-year contract,” Smith adds.
Best also teases out a detail that suggests some additional benefits in terms of habitat conservation. Apparently some site remediation is included in the package, indicating that the renewable energy project may come with an opportunity to plant some plants in and around the solar array.
That is super interesting because Lightsource is already a big fan of agrivoltaics, in which solar panels go to work on regenerative agriculture chores. So far the focus is mainly on establishing pollinator habitats around solar panels, but crop-focused applications are also beginning to emerge.
The green benefits of agrivoltaics go both ways. Researchers are finding that the green ground cover under the solar panels contributes to a microclimate that helps improve solar cell efficiency.
I know, right? CleanTechnica is reaching out to Lightsource to see if any of these green goodies are in play at the Rocky Mountain site, so stay tuned for more on that.
More Renewable Energy For Heavy Industry
With the commercial power generation sector slipping rapidly away, coal stakeholders have been holding onto hopes that heavy industry will provide safe haven. Unfortunately for them, the EVRAZ-Lightsource project demonstrates how quickly the entire steel recycling industry could shed fossil fuels.
EVRAZ is not the only player to pivot, and solar power is not the only renewable energy option. Another leading steel maker, Nucor, is eyeballing homegrown wind power for its steel scrap recycling facility in Missouri.
The steel maker voestalpine is taking another tack. It is heading in the green hydrogen direction for sustainable steel making in Europe. That should give coal fans a good case of the heebie-jeebies. Last year our friends over at Wood Mackenzie used green hydrogen and kryptonite in the same breath when assessing the future of metallurgical coal in the steel industry.
The aluminum industry has also become a renewable energy hotbed. That sector has historically leaned on renewables in the form of hydropower, so it is primed to adopt new clean power sources. Check out Alcoa’s “ELYSIS” venture to see how far the aluminum industry could go.
The trend toward bio-based super-fibers and other renewable replacements for metal could also have a dampening effect on the demand for metallurgical coal in future years, so keep an eye on that, too.
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Image: (cropped): Bighorn Solar Project via Lightsource bp.