Is This Dirty Little Secret Enough to Tarnish Wind Energy’s Future?

Wind turbines have a dirty little secret. This clean power generator isn't entirely clean. Wind actually requires a dirty partner to get the job done. That partner is the steel industry, which produces its share of emissions in order to bring us renewable wind energy. 

Wind's strong tower
Wind towers might not emit any carbon dioxide, but the steel used in the tower creates a lot of carbon as it's produced. Every ton of steel generates almost two tons of carbon dioxide emissions. For an industry that produces about 1.5 billion tons of steel per year, that's a lot of carbon. In fact, estimates suggest that the steel industry as a whole is responsible for more than 5% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Blast furnace being tapped. Photo credit: United States Steel Corporation  


That said, the steel industry is getting much cleaner. Over the past 30 years it has reduced the energy consumption per tonne of steel production by 50%. However, by its own admittance, the industry doesn't have much room for improvement as it has already gone as far as current technology will allow. Unless there is a radical new breakthrough in steelmaking technology, the industry's only hope to reduce its carbon footprint is through carbon capture and storage or to reduce its carbon footprint elsewhere. Most American steel makers are taking that second option and investing in unique ways to reduce reduce the carbon footprint of making steel.

Cleaning steel
One company leading the way to make cleaner steel is Nucor (NYSE: NUE  ) . The company's recycling process produces 67% less carbon emissions than an equivalent process. As North America's largest recycler of steel, Nucor is playing a major role in the efforts to reduce carbon emissions.  

Nucor is not alone in its drive to clean up the steel industry. U.S. Steel (NYSE: X  ) is just as committed to cleaning up its emissions by driving down its energy usage. The company is investing in several technologies to make the steelmaking process more environmentally responsible. In addition to that, U.S. Steel is transitioning many of its fleet vehicles to those powered by compressed natural gas as well as biodiesel. Finally, the company actually added wind towers to its facility in Minnesota. Theses moves will enable U.S. Steel to lower its carbon footprint, even if it can't make clean steel.

The big picture: Wind still wins
Despite the fact that steel isn't clean to produce, the benefits of wind power still far outweigh the negatives of using steel. In fact, studies are now showing that wind energy is having an even greater impact on emissions than were commonly thought. That's because wind is being found to cause the worst offending coal power plants to go offline and be replaced by more efficient units. Further, studies in Spain have concluded that even intermittent wind is better than no wind in curbing carbon emissions. Even better, one recent study in the U.S. showed that if we increased wind generated capacity to 30% from the base case of 2% we would see emissions decline by 29%. That's more than a one-for-one reduction in emissions.    

Final thoughts
No energy source is truly clean. However, despite its need for steel, wind's clean image isn't tarnished one bit. Further, as steel producers work to reduce emissions and their carbon footprint, it will make wind an even cleaner power source.

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  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 9:36 PM, LisaLinowes wrote:

    Mr. DiLallo - WInd power is not driving coal out of business; natural gas is doing that. Meanwhile, federal and state subsidies for wind are enabling wind energy producers to practice predatory price practices which are damaging our competitive energy markets. You quote the study that 30% wind penetration can achieve 29% emission reduction but never stop to consider the cost in subsidies. The federal subsidy alone would be in the trillions of dollars. And that ignores the cost of transmission to connect remotely sited projects to load centers.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 9:25 AM, TXObjectivist75 wrote:

    You forgot the other dirty secrets: uncompetitive pricing bolstered by tax subsidies, cuisinarting endangered bird species, and just being a general blight on the landscape (try looking at pretty much any view in West Texas now).

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2014, at 5:29 PM, michaelgoggin wrote:

    While you are correct that all recent analyses have shown that wind energy reduces fossil fuel use and pollution by as much or more than expected, you are incorrect to allege that building and installing wind turbines significantly affects their lifecycle emissions. In fact, this report performed a comprehensive review of all peer-reviewed studies on the lifecycle emissions of various generating technologies and found that wind energy’s impact was a few percent of fossil fuel resources and better than almost all other non-emitting resources:

    Michael Goggin,

    American Wind Energy Association

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Matt DiLallo

Matthew is a Senior Energy and Materials Specialist with The Motley Fool. He graduated from the Liberty University with a degree in Biblical Studies and a Masters of Business Administration. You can follow him on Twitter for the latest news and analysis of the energy and materials industries:

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