There’s a myth that old polluting industries will vanish as a wave of new clean energy technologies wash them out of the economy. The reality is actually very different. New technologies often breathe new life into the old economy. That can be an inspiration and feed us with optimism for the future.
There are examples of this around the country, and opportunities here in Minnesota.
Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) was founded in 1892 and owned by John D. Rockefeller. Jr. as part of his plan to create a controlling syndicate of energy resources in the U.S. CF&I was the only steel-making company west of the Mississippi, and it provided the capacity to make rail for the expansion of critical transportation capacity from coast to coast. The company, whose steel-making facility was in Pueblo, Colorado, was also the site of two historic labor disputes; one, in 1913-14, ended in the infamous Ludlow Massacre of coal miners. The other at the Pueblo steel mill lasted more than seven years, from 1997 to 2004.
Today, the old CF&I mill in Pueblo is owned by Evraz, N.A. and is the largest electricity consumer in the state, producing construction grade rod and bar, and a majority of the transportation rail in North America. Last year, Xcel Energy, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and Evraz entered into an agreement to develop a 240-megawatt solar facility on the Evraz property, making it the first electric arc furnace in the world to rely primarily on solar energy. In exchange, the PUC locked in the electricity price for the mill for 22 years which, in turn, led to Evraz preparing to build a new long rail mill to provide its U.S. and Canadian customers with next generation rail products.
Building the new solar project will create hundreds of construction jobs; the new rail mill even more. More importantly, Evraz has guaranteed that the Pueblo mill will continue employing at least 1,000 steelworkers, making the steel products necessary for a low carbon economy and more efficient transportation infrastructure. A seventh generation of Pueblo Coloradans can rely on that mill for employment.
Similar projects are transforming other sections of our economy. South of Houston, NRG’s Petra Nova, coal-fired power plant has now been operating with carbon capture sequestration technology for more than three years, reducing its carbon emissions by 90%. Funded by an Obama-era Department of Energy grant to demonstrate the effectiveness of CCUS, the carbon dioxide emissions created by burning coal are captured, pressurized and transported by pipelines for further use in enhanced oil recovery and permanent underground storage.
And in ArcelorMittal’s Indiana steel mill, a waste-heat-to-power (WTP) unit uses flared gas from the blast furnace to generate enough electricity for 30,000 homes. This project was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Industrial Technologies Program, an initiative that Congress should reauthorize.
In the middle of a job-killing pandemic, these are the kinds of projects and approaches that simultaneously solve the jobs and climate crises. They should give Americans optimism for the future. They should also encourage us to think big about solutions that can reorganize our economy with technologies that can repurpose our existing assets and transform the companies and employees that currently produce and deliver the energy that powers our state.
Minnesota has several opportunities to apply the benefits of clean energy to old industries. The first is the Gerdau Steel mill in St. Paul, which closed its melt shop and rolling mill in August, laying off more than 200 steelworkers. Built in 1967, the mill could be given a new lease on life in the same way as the Pueblo steel mill, working with our state PUC and Xcel Energy to expand the use of renewable energy while guaranteeing a long-term, competitive electricity price.
On the Iron Range, wind resources could also be put to use lowering the energy costs of our taconite mines and creating new opportunities for next-generation iron ore products such as direct reduced iron (DRI) which, in turn, could improve steel quality and lower the cost of electric arc furnace steelmaking.
In Pueblo, Colorado, generations of coal miners and steelworkers fought for decades to turn hard and dangerous jobs into good jobs. Clean energy is preserving those jobs for the next generation. We should do the same in St. Paul and on the Iron Range.
David Foster is the retired District 11 director of the United Steelworkers and a former senior adviser to the secretary’s office of the U.S. Department of Energy. He currently works as a Distinguished Associate at the Energy Futures Initiative and is a visiting scholar at MIT.
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