Electrification is key as U.S. steel industry cleans up its act
Sustainability is higher up the global agenda than ever, and nowhere more so than in the United States, where President Joe Biden seeks to reduce nationwide greenhouse gas emissions to less than half the 2005 levels by 2030. Electrification will be key to this evolution in the steel industry.
“It is of paramount importance to the U.S. iron and steel industry to be more sustainable,” says Baskar Vairamohan, Principal Project Manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “Electric technologies can help reduce emissions, increase productivity, cut product waste and improve product quality.”
EPRI is a nonprofit organization for public interest energy and environmental research, focusing on issues related to electric power. Its research shows that efficient electrification has the potential to boost energy efficiency and grid flexibility, increase productivity and improve product quality, while reducing emissions, saving water and enhancing safety throughout society. In addition to other benefits, the application of efficient electric technologies in place of direct fossil fuel use can offer potential health and safety improvements to workers in various commercial and industrial facilities.
Still, Vairamohan explains that gas remains the number one heating solution in the United States. Close to 90 percent of the country’s steel industry continues to use fossil fuel gas or open flame for ladle preheating, although electricity is widely used in the steelmaking process itself.
“Even though overall electricity use is only around 17 percent, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that roughly two-thirds of the country’s steel is produced using electric arc furnaces,” he says. “So, while an electric technology is already number one in steelmaking, the same is not true for heat treatment or iron production.”
Electrification would benefit U.S. steel producers
According to Vairamohan, electric heating could offer considerable benefits to U.S. steel producers. For example, electric heating delivers rapid heating and fast startup speed production; high thermal efficiency of up to 90 percent, minimizing energy use and reducing heat loss into the workplace; and a safer working environment.
“Gas combustion furnaces require burners, blowers, fans, exhaust stacks and potentially expensive emission controls,” he says. “With no combustion or emissions from combustion, the working environment is safer, quieter and more comfortable.”
Further benefits range from reduced floor space requirements and significantly lower maintenance costs to zero on-site emissions and significant savings from less metal loss, he says.
Overcoming the obstacles
So why the continued reluctance to make the switch?
“I don’t think it comes down to skepticism so much as other obstacles such as lack of capital funds, lack of awareness and a desire to stick with familiar processes,” Vairamohan says. “U.S. industries may also be slightly behind their counterparts in other countries because the cost of natural gas is very low compared to other countries that have higher electricity usage in this industry.”
While he acknowledges there is room for improvement, Vairamohan believes the U.S. steel industry is evolving, albeit slowly.
“According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, the industry has reduced its energy intensity and greenhouse gas emission intensity by 35 and 37 percent respectively since 1990,” he says. “It is constantly looking for new, efficient technologies to implement. However, some companies continue to trail behind.”
Will the U.S. steel industry succeed in complying with President Biden’s ambitious sustainability policies? Only the future will tell.
Converting from gas to electric heating processes in steelmaking produces savings in many areas. According to EPRI research, electric heating:
- Delivers up to 90 percent thermal efficiency
- Requires 15 to 20 percent less floor space
- Uses up to 30 percent less energy in induction heat treatment processes compared with conventional natural gas-based furnaces
- Produces fewer on-site emissions
- Emits 100 percent less CO and combustible gases on-site
- In addition, non-energy benefits for customers include improved productivity, reduced waste (scrap) and improved product quality.