a Big Plug . . .
. . . for the Metal Industries’ ‘Green’ Gains
Steel and aluminum producers have made great strides in reducing their environmental footprint, but they acknowledge much work remains.
By Myra Pinkham, Contributing Editor
Sidebar: Environmental Issues Clouded by Partisan Atmosphere in D.C. (See Below)
Domestic steel and aluminum producers consider “going green” a high priority—not just for altruistic reasons, but because it makes good business sense. While they have already made significant progress in becoming better stewards of their environment, mill executives say they intend to continue pushing the envelope as far as technology allows.
“We are a very energy-intensive industry,” says Brett Smith, senior director of government relations for the American Iron and Steel Institute in Washington, D.C. “It takes a lot of energy to make steel, so getting increased energy efficiency is the right thing to do for a number of reasons. It makes sense, not only from an environmental perspective but an economic perspective, as well.”
When steelmakers are more efficient, they consume less energy, and consuming less energy has a positive impact on their bottom line, says Eric J. Stuart, vice president of environment and energy for the Steel Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C.
“Up to this point, there haven’t been regulations on the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But many companies realize that by reducing the amount of energy they are consuming, they are also reducing their greenhouse gas emissions,” Stuart says.
For companies represented by SMA—the minimills that remelt steel scrap in giant electric arc furnaces—energy usage is a particularly large part of the cost of steel production. They are continually looking for ways to reduce their power need, and at the same time reduce the demand they are putting on their region’s electrical grid, he adds.
Aluminum, another very energy-
intensive industry, has also spent an inordinate amount of time and resources to improve its energy efficiency and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, says Charles Johnson, vice president of environment, health and safety for the Aluminum Association in Arlington, Va.
The environmental accomplishments of big aluminum and steel are all the more notable considering they were largely proactive, rather than forced by government legislation or regulation (see related sidebar on page 17).
The domestic steel industry has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions (largely carbon dioxide) by 35 percent and increased its energy efficiency by about 30 percent since 1990. That is 240 percent of the Kyoto protocol, an international climate change agreement calling for an annual GHG reduction of 5 percent from 2008-2012, says Christopher Plummer, managing director of Metal Strategies Inc., West Chester, Pa.
Meanwhile, the aluminum industry has sharply reduced primary production, while stepping up secondary production or aluminum recycling. Since 1992, the industry has reduced primary production by more than 80 percent. During the same time period, the primary aluminum industry has become 17 percent more energy efficient, while the secondary aluminum industry has become 59 percent more energy efficient. “These are great industrial efficiency gains, especially in the current climate where energy costs and production dominate so much of the political discussion,” Johnson says.
Extracting aluminum takes an unavoidable toll on the environment, but the industry is doing what it can to remediate the damage from bauxite mining, he adds. “For the last several years, the aluminum industry has worked on a benchmarking project to make sure we knew what was going on in the mining industry. It has shown that, as of last year and probably the year before, the aluminum industry is remediating as much land as it disturbs each year.”
Squeezing extra efficiency out of steel and aluminum production equipment is becoming more difficult. Indeed, the U.S. steel industry has almost fully achieved the energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions that can be obtained using today’s best available technologies, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s recently released report: “Meeting Energy Efficiency and Emissions Reduction Goals in the U.S. Steel Industry.”
Given that the domestic steel industry has already achieved one of the lowest carbon dioxide emission intensities among steel producing countries worldwide, the DOE report concludes that it will be nearly impossible for U.S. steelmakers to meet future government carbon dioxide reduction goals with currently available technology. “Available reductions using best available technologies amount to a mere 12 percent of current emissions intensities, while proposed policies call for 50 percent to 80 percent economy-wide reductions,” the report states. “Additional breakthrough steelmaking technologies and processes will be needed to achieve proposed domestic and global policy goals for energy efficiency and carbon emission reductions.”
The same is true of the aluminum industry, Johnson adds. “A lot of the big gains for our industry have already been made, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to improve.”
Much of the steel industry’s progress has been the result of individual companies’ efforts. “Honestly, it isn’t something that has been an industry standard, but rather what individual companies decide is worth their while,” Stuart says. With most of the big gains already achieved, the industry is left to “tickling at the edges” in hopes of eking out additional energy savings.
The goal is to make sure that none of the energy created during the steelmaking process is wasted, says Smith at AISI. “It’s about making sure that all the heat and by-product gases are reused on-site and that a lot of recycling of energy and water are done at the facilities.”
The rapid growth of minimill steelmaking over the past four decades accounts for much of the reduction in the industry’s environmental footprint. As of 2011, electric arc furnace steelmakers account for 70 percent of all domestic steelmaking capacity, Stuart notes. “EAFs by nature recycle scrap. That is just the way we do business.”
Much of what the aluminum industry has accomplished, especially as far as reducing PFC (perfluorocarbon) emissions, has been through the proper control and mitigation of anode effect—spikes of voltage that occur in the aluminum pot during smelting, Johnson says. “Once we realized the environmental benefits of our work to reduce anode effect, we partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others in the U.S. government to export that technology to other countries through what had been known as the Asia Pacific Partnership. The most notable success there has been in China, where we still have ongoing programs even though the Asia Pacific Partnership is no longer active,” he says.
Both the steel and aluminum industries continue to focus on recycling—both scrap from metals production and processing, as well as end products made from those metals. “While it sometimes gets overlooked, recycling provides lifecycle cost advantage,” Smith says. In fact, on an annual basis (with some steel from previous years moving forward), the steel recycling rate is about 103 percent, according to the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh.
“One great success of the aluminum industry has been a general shift toward increased secondary aluminum production,” Johnson says. “More than half of the U.S. annual production of aluminum is recycled aluminum.” The energy saving from this trend is enormous, as it only takes about 5 percent of the energy to make secondary aluminum from scrap vs. what it takes to make primary aluminum from ore. “That is, of course, in addition to the normal benefits of recycling, including the diversion of material from landfills,” Johnson adds.
The overall aluminum recycling rate, including material recycled by the automotive and construction industries, is over 90 percent, says Mike Belwood, spokesman for Alcoa Inc. in Pittsburgh. Beverage cans, the most familiar and ubiquitous aluminum product, are recycled at a 57.4 percent rate, although the industry’s goal is to collect and remelt 75 percent of used cans by 2015.
Some companies are not just promoting the recycling of the materials they produce, but promoting recycling in general. “Many of our member companies recycle everything that comes on site,” says SMA’s Stuart. “Not just the steel and the scrap they generate, but all deliveries, including pallets, paper and other materials that can be recycled.” In fact, SMA recently honored one member, V&M Star, for combining slag with other waste materials and making it into a road bed.
Alcoa started to address environmental issues even before climate change garnered widespread global attention. “In 1998, we set a company-wide global goal to reduce our overall greenhouse emissions 25 percent by 2010 from a 1990 base line, a goal that we actually achieved in 2003,” Belwood says. As of 2009, Alcoa had reduced greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms by 44 percent from that baseline. The company has now targeted a 30 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide intensity of its primary operations by 2030. It also plans to reduce the energy intensity at its primary facilities by 15 percent and at other businesses by 30 percent.
Alcoa is also involved with several research projects to develop new technologies, Belwood says. Its research on a more energy-efficient inert anode, a carbonless anode, is still ongoing. The company is also researching a carbothermic smelting process, which holds the potential to produce aluminum at lower conversion, energy and capital costs than traditional smelting. Finding sites for such facilities would be easier because they would be smaller and more flexible in their power requirements.
Larry Fabina, energy team coordinator for ArcelorMittal USA in Chicago, says that over the past four years there has been a transformation at the steelmaker, both operationally and culturally, to be more focused on improved energy management. “From the shop floor to the desk space, many employees have become conscious about how energy use affects their day-to-day life at work and at home.”
In the United States, ArcelorMittal has achieved more than $22.7 million in ongoing annual energy savings by implementing 24 projects over the past two years. “The company also expanded the number of sites engaged in its energy program during 2010, with 90 percent of our U.S. sites using the ArcelorMittal Energy Management System model,” Fabina says. In 2008, ArcelorMittal was the first steel company to achieve an Energy Star award, and has done so for four consecutive years.
Last year, ArcelorMittal competed for and was awarded a matching grant of $31.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for a project to capture gas flare and reuse it to produce electricity at its Indiana Harbor facility. It also has another ARRA project in the works focused on reducing energy consumption at its Burns Harbor mill.
ArcelorMittal also has set a global goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent per metric ton of steel by 2020, Fabina adds.
Jim Earl, manager of environmental engineering at Severstal Dearborn in Michigan, notes that installing new burners and increasing hot charging at its reheat furnaces has resulted in a 15 percent reduction of natural gas consumption at its hot mill.
Since 2007, Severstal Dearborn has invested approximately $60 million in baghouses to greatly reduce particulate matter emissions. “Severstal Dearborn is scheduled to launch two new facilities in 2011, a pickle line tandem cold mill and hot-dip coating line. The pickle line tandem cold mill will replace the existing pickle lines and tandem mill and will greatly benefit the environment,” Earl says. “For example, the new pickle line and scrubber will reduce hydrochloric acid emissions by approximately 60 percent, and the new tandem mill will substantially reduce the amount of used oil generated each year. The hot-dip coated line will have its own dedicated wastewater treatment plant to clean the wastewater prior to discharge.”
United States Steel Corp., Pittsburgh, has several efforts under way geared at energy conservation, energy recycling and the reduction of emissions, says spokeswoman Courtney Boone. As part of this goal, the steelmaker has invested $220 million in carbon alloy synthesis, a breakthrough steelmaking technology to produce a coke alternative for the blast furnace. It has licensed the Cokonyx technology from Carbonyx Inc., its first domestic application in steelmaking, to be used in the blast furnace at U.S. Steel Gary Works by 2012. “This process has a number of environmental benefits compared with a coke battery, including a significant reduction in air emissions and no water emissions because it is a continuous batch process. Also, a variety of coals can be used,” she says.
U.S. Steel is also replacing coke batteries 7, 8 and 9 at its Mon Valley Works in Clairton, Pa., with a single, larger C-Battery. Batteries 1, 2 and 3 also are going through environmental rehabilitation, including the addition of low emission quench towers. This project, to be completed by 2013, will employ the ThyssenKrupp-Uhde PROven gas technology system to control the pressure in the coke ovens and, therefore, reduce emissions, Boone says.
While much of the low hanging fruit has already been harvested, the metals industry continues to work on improvements every day, says AISI’s Smith. Much of that entails the tweaking of current technology and processes. “We know that the technological jumps in the reduction of energy usage don’t come today or tomorrow. They come 10 to 20 years down the road,” adds SMA’s Stuart.
Such next-generation breakthroughs are likely to come from joint research now under way involving industry, public and private universities, the Department of Energy and other government agencies, Smith says. Among the more promising is a molten oxide electrolysis project that AISI is working on in conjunction with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as a hydrogen flash smelting project at the University of Utah.
The molten oxide electrolysis project involves a new process of producing iron through the use of carbon-free anodes, which makes the technology completely free of carbon emissions, as oxygen is the only effluent. According to the DOE report, AISI and MIT are currently working to scale up the rate of iron production and exploring options to extend the life of the electrodes. There is no timetable yet for its practical application.
Hydrogen flash smelting is another carbon-free process, based on hydrogen’s reaction with iron oxides at elevated temperatures to produce iron. The only byproduct of this process is water. This approach relies on an abundant and affordable supply of hydrogen, however, which is not yet available. The concept is being stepped up to a pilot plant level.
Another potential area for research is carbon capture and sequestration, according to the authors of the Energy Department report, where carbon dioxide is collected at the point of emissions and transported to a storage location where it is isolated from the atmosphere long-term. However, several necessary technologies are still in the early stages of development, and the economics remain unclear.
“The United States is the greenest place in the world to make steel,” Smith says. “That has been demonstrated over the last few decades in both the energy efficiency and greenhouse emissions world, and it is very much the case in the recycling world. We want to keep it that way.”
The same is true of aluminum, Johnson says. “The aluminum industry will continue to explore the sustainability of our metal and the environmental impacts and benefits of its use. It is a major focus of our association going forward.”
Environmental Issues Clouded by Partisan Atmosphere in D.C.
While the domestic steel and aluminum industries have been self-motivated to become more “green,” they continue to face pressures from U.S. governmental agencies and legislators.
Cap-and-trade and other climate change legislation has apparently slid to the back burner after the congressional elections in November. “Instead, the U.S. government is taking a command-and-control approach with the EPA stepping in deeming greenhouse gas emissions an endangerment to health and regulating it under the Clean Air Act,” says Christopher Plummer, managing director of Metal Strategies Inc., West Chester, Pa.
“The mid-term elections really solidified an attitude of partisanship, particularly in regard to the type of legislative activities that might impact the economy of the United States,” says Eric J. Stuart, vice president of environment and energy for the Steel Manufacturers Association. “When you are talking about climate change legislation, you are either talking about a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, either of which is a dirty word in Washington. What you might see in Congress over the next two years is energy-efficiency bills or legislation requiring a larger percentage of energy produced domestically to be renewable in nature—but not climate change legislation.” More likely, he adds, is that the Obama administration will continue leaning heavily on the regulatory side.
Charles Johnson, vice president of environment, health and safety for the Aluminum Association, says the main concern of energy-intensive industries is that new regulations or legislation could raise energy costs to the point it affects their ability to do business in North America.
No such measures are at the forefront of the congressional agenda at the moment. “What is of concern is the EPA’s regulatory scheme under the Clean Air Act, which we are dealing with now,” says Brett Smith, senior director of government relations for the American Iron and Steel Institute. As of the first quarter of 2011, large stationary sources of greenhouse gas emissions, including steel mills and other metals facilities, were obligated to have a permitting regime in place under the Clean Air Act and to report their greenhouse gas emissions under the greenhouse gas inventory program.
“We don’t believe this is what the Clean Air Act was written for in the first place,” Stuart says. “It was meant to control and regulate other pollutants. Some would argue that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases aren’t pollutants, regardless of what the EPA says.”
Several bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress, as well as proposed limitations on appropriations, to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under their endangerment finding. In the House, a bill introduced by Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ed Whitfied (R-Ky.) would permanently pre-empt the EPA’s ability to regulate stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. It is likely to come up for a floor vote in the next few weeks and, according to Smith, has a good chance of passage.
Chances for similar legislation in the Senate, such as the Energy Tax Prevention Act proposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. James Inhofe, (R-Okla.), don’t appear as good, Stuart says. Even if a conference bill is passed, there is a good chance President Obama will veto it.
At this point, the EPA’s reporting requirement has been delayed until late summer due to problems with its electronic reporting database.
Industry observers say that environmental uncertainty both on the legislative and regulatory fronts could cause metals companies, as well as power companies, to delay plans for greenfield and brownfield expansions.