Environment and Energy

DOE Study: Sky's the Limit on Solar Energy

Written by Tim Triplett

What does the rapid advancement of solar energy mean for the steel industry? Solar has major implications, both for the steel it will consume and the energy it will provide. Without solar energy, steelmakers have no chance of reaching their zero-emissions goals over the next three decades.

solar2Even if steel mills can somehow figure out how to cut the Scope 1 carbon-dioxide emissions from their own furnaces – through a combination of more EAFs, greater use of scrap and scrap substitutes, carbon capture, and  new breakthrough technologies such as hydrogen-based steelmaking – they will still have to rely on others to reduce the Scope 2 emissions from the generation of the electricity they need.

Among the many moving parts in President Biden’s ambitious plans to address climate change is funding for a big expansion of solar energy production. Today, the U.S. has a total of 76 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity, equivalent to 3% of the nation’s electricity supply. With a massive effort backed by the government to add solar capacity, solar energy has the potential to provide 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035, the DOE estimates in its newly released Solar Futures Study.

“The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.

To reach its goal of a carbon-free electrical grid, the U.S. must install an average of 30 GW of solar capacity per year between now and 2025 and 60 GW per year from 2025-2030. The rest would be supplied by wind (36%), nuclear (11-13%), hydroelectric (5-6%) and biopower/geothermal (1%).

Wind energy is another growth market for steel. Those giant turbine towers popping up in cornfields all over the country require a lot of steel plate. Wind and solar combined could provide 75% of electricity by 2035 and 90% by 2050, the DOE calculates.

The Biden administration is having a hard time convincing Congress to spend another $3.5 trillion on infrastructure. The DOE contends that the health benefits from reduced air pollution and better air quality will result in societal savings of $1.1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, far outweighing the cost of the transition to clean energy.

But it won’t happen without supportive decarbonization policies and advanced technologies to further reduce the cost of solar energy, the DOE adds. Absent some combination of limits on carbon emissions and mechanisms to incentivize clean energy, emissions from the grid will only fall by about 60%.

How many solar panels are we talking about here? To achieve these goals, the DOE estimates the U.S. would have to install ground-based solar technologies equivalent to 0.5% of the surface area of the contiguous United States. The U.S. covers roughly 3 million square miles; thus a half-percent would equal 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the areas of the states of New Jersey and Connecticut combined. That’s a lot of panels – and a lot of steel racking and supports to keep them pointed at the sun.

By Tim Triplett, Tim@SteelMarketUpdate.com

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