APRIL 2009

Steel: It’s been green for years

With the Obama administration hoping to implement a cap and trade system to help the nation reduce its emissions of green house gases (GHG), the United States steel industry is poised to benefit from a desire by companies to purchase environmentally-friendly steel products.

While America still imports steel, the desire to purchase green steel could help to spur steel production domestically. In a major sense, American steel already has a green element to it as recycled steel is a key ingredient in new steel production and the steel recycling rate in the States is high.

Scrap metal being charged into an electric arc furnace.

Bill Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute, said that the nation’s steel industry has seriously reduced its carbon footprint over the past 20 years.

“In 2007 the industry reduced energy per ton of steel produced by 33 percent since 1990, the base year for the Kyoto Protocol,” he said. “Although the United States has not ratified the Protocol, which called for a seven percent reduction, the steel industry has achieved this extraordinary performance via a combination of capital and material utilization improvements and technological advances such as the use of electric arc furnace steelmaking, which enabled significant increases in utilizing recycled steel.

“Due to the close relationship between energy use and GHG emissions,” he added, “the industry’s aggregate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per-ton of steel produced have also been substantially reduced. Compared to the Protocol’s call for an average United States reduction of 7 percent in GHG emissions between 1990 and 2012, this means the American steel industry has already surpassed the Kyoto target.”

An electric arc furnace recycling tons of scrap metal into new high quality steel.

American-made steel, compared to producers in other nations and regions, shows that steps are being taken in America to limit impacts on the environment.

The measures taken by the industry, said Heenan, were not limited to innovations and efficiencies at the plant.

“In addition to collaborating with the international steel industry,” he said, “we are working hand-in-hand with our customers to provide them with the answers to their carbon footprint queries and are advising them on how to maximize green manufacturing goals, which in many cases give them a competitive edge.

“When it comes to steel,” he added, “that often extends to its rebirth due to the ability to recycle it again and again, which accounts for its high recycling rate. Be it bridges or buildings, we see steel that is employed in construction or consumer products as scrap in waiting.”

The use of high-performance steels is making a difference in carbon emissions, especially in the case of bridges, automobile manufacturing and the production of wind turbines to generate electricity.

Because of improvements in steel technology and design approaches, nearly the same amount of steel can used in the construction of a new eight-lane bridge as was used in the older, narrower bridges that are being replaced as they age.

Compared to the early 1980s when domestic steelmaking processes consumed 37.8 gigajoule (GJ) of energy per ton of steel produced, the steel industry, by 2005, lowered the average energy consumption per-ton of steel produced to 11.5 GJ. This was achieved through the increased use of scrap and technological innovations.

High-performance steel is also improving performance advantages for new trucks and cars due to new grades of Advanced High-Strength Steel (AHSS). This steel provides lighter optimized body designs that have translated into improved vehicle crash-worthiness and improved fuel economy, which are reducing total GHG emissions.

“Using AHSS provides a sustainable solution for reducing GHG emissions over the complete life cycle of the vehicle,” said Heenan. “Should body structures of all cars produced worldwide be made of AHSS instead of conventional steel, 172 million tons of CO2 equivalents could be avoided.”

“Less steel is required per-vehicle,” he added, “which reduces emissions from steel production. Fuel savings reduce emissions from driving. Every 2,205 pounds of AHSS used in a vehicle can result in total life cycle savings of 19.85 pounds GHG – a 5.7 percent reduction in GHG emissions over the full life cycle of the vehicle.”

Employing AHSS could result in lifetime saving of 2.5 tons CO2 equivalents per vehicle, which, said Heenan, more than offset the total CO2 emitted during steel manufacturing for all the steel used in the vehicle.

“Should body structures of all cars produced worldwide, estimated to be 71 million in 2008,” he said, “be made of AHSS instead of conventional steel, this would result in total lifetime emission savings equivalent to 156 million tons CO2.”

Globally, approximately 85 percent of the wind turbines are installed on tubular steel structures. Additionally, 80 percent of all materials used to construct a wind turbine, on average, consist of steel.

According to recent statistics, the amount of energy used to manufacture, operate and dismantle a typical turbine is recovered within nine months of operation.

“Steel offers considerable advantages for the construction of wind turbine towers due to its strength and durability,” said Heenan, who noted that towers can be manufactured in sections of up to 100 feet, and be fitted together and installed on site. “The global wind energy sector consumes approximately 1.65 million tons of steel annually. Because of the high steel content in a 2 megawatt, 260 foot-high wind turbine, at least 80 percent of all materials are recyclable. On average, at least 90 percent of the steel from wind turbines can be recovered for recycling.

When the turbines at the Horns Rev wind farm in Denmark reach the end of their life, steel recycling will save 52,000 tons of CO2 in primary steel production.”

Steel recycling, he added, is key to maximizing GHG reductions in wind farms.

“Without it,” said Heenan, “the environmental impacts of the power production phase would be significantly higher. A 6 percent increase in recovery from 90 percent to 96 percent would result in a reduction of GHG emissions of approximately 3 percent based on LCA studies.

“While the above mentioned numbers are based on studies in Denmark,” he added, “they can be applied to one of the first urban wind farms in the United States – the Steel Winds’ site. This farm in New York State generates over 50 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity annually, powering about 6,000 homes and saving 28,000 tons of CO2 per year.”

Case studies are now being developed for automobile fuel tanks, canned food, passenger rail and building sectors to address carbon footprint issues, with an emphasis on life cycle approaches, including the manufacturing, use and end of life stages.

Steve Rowlan, director of Environmental Affairs for North Carolina-based Nucor Corporation, has concerns about the potential impact of a cap and trade system on the American steel industry.

“With all this wonderful environmental performance by the industry, we are still being asked to do more,” he said. “Cap and trades are putting the industry in peril, potentially causing this incredible green effort to be pushed offshore and be undone. If we want to truly impact global carbon concentrations, we have to look at cap and trade to see if it really discourages the very behavior that we think it is encouraging.”

Rowlan said that Congress could pass regulations that would not violate existing trade agreements and minimize the impact of a cap and trade program on the steel industry.

“They could require that all steel sold in the States, whether it’s produced domestically or abroad, meet the carbon footprint requirements that American steel is already meeting,” he said, “but people tend to balk and pull away from that. It shows that their motive is not really about climate change, but is more about regulating domestic industry.”

In the past, Congress has called upon foreign nations to match or take steps to match American standards regarding labor and other dossiers. Rowlan said this is more of case of making demands and showing American leadership, but that these nations have no legal requirement to follow our lead.

“A well done climate change bill could encourage more recycling,” he said, “but we have to be aware that it will raise our energy costs, making the ability to recycle steel and other materials much more expensive. When that expense starts to hit us and makes our steel – which is highly recycled – more expensive than steel produced in a country where they have no environmental laws or GHG regulatory laws, you have basically exported the emissions.”

The next step for the steel industry, said Rowlan, is to ensure the recognition of its reductions in GHG emissions, and to show the indirect effects that would affect the industry, even were it excluded from the cap and trade program.

“The indirect costs of having our energy costs – natural gas and electricity – go up significantly,” he said, “will still be a significant burden on us and reduce our international competitiveness. There are some estimates that our power rates could double. For an electric arc furnace that is a huge cost and we’ll have no way of passing that on to our customers if we are competing directly with producers that don’t have those same costs coming to them.”