The World’s First Solar-Powered Steel Mill Is Here

The World’s First Solar-Powered Steel Mill Is Here
Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images

An old steel mill is getting a new lease on life in Pueblo, Colorado. The company will be the first in the world to get the majority of its energy from solar power.

The EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel factory is opening a new chapter in its history. On Wednesday, a partnership called Lightsource BP — yes, that BP — unveiled the Bighorn Solar project, a new 300-megawatt solar farm. Most of the project’s 750,000 solar panels lie on the EVRAZ property itself, making the farm the largest on-site solar project in the nation dedicated to a single customer. The project was first announced in 2019 and is already partially operational. The companies say it will be fully online by next month.

Solar-powered steel is great. The iron and steel sector is responsible for 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, accounting for 8% of all global energy demand and 7% of energy-related carbon emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Those emissions are roughly on par with all of India’s in a year. The reason for steel’s large carbon footprint is because manufacturing it largely relies on coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, as both a feedstock and an energy source. The EVRAZ mill has been powered by coal for most of its time in operation.

The venture claims the project will enable Xcel Energy — the utility that’s part of the partnership — to avoid 433,770 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s equivalent to removing more than 92,000 cars from the road each year. Even before this new development, the EVRAZ steel mill has been recycling scrap metal to produce rails for railway lines and other products. Solar power, Lightsource BP said, will “enable the mill to produce some of the world’s greenest steel and steel products.”

The announcement comes two months after a Swedish firm announced it made the world’s first delivery of carbon-free steel to a customer. The new solar projects’ developers hope this achievement could usher in even more renewable-powered steel in the future.

“Worldwide, heavy industry can depend on renewable energy to power their facilities,” Kevin Smith, CEO of Americas for Lightsource BP, said in a statement. “This is really significant.”

But while decarbonizing heavy industry is a good thing, the folks behind this project are not my favourites. Lightsource BP is a joint venture between the steel company EVRAZ and the energy giant BP, as well as the utility giant Xcel Energy, which will provide the steel mill with fixed electricity rates through 2041. BP and Xcel wouldn’t exactly be my top choices to control the energy of the future, what with both companies’ histories of spewing out carbon emissions, greenwashing their polluting business plans, and screwing over workers. I personally don’t think these kinds of companies should get to make big profits on solar power or use it to paper over their destructive legacies. But hey, maybe that’s just me!