We’ve talked a lot about renewables and energy over the years around here. We’ve brought a lot of that to you.
However, our coverage — while I stand by it — leaves a whole lot we haven’t discussed.
Sure, we talk a lot about transportation and how battery power fails to scale well to heavy vehicles. It will drive alternative power source engineering and manufacturing for decades to come, but that is just one application.
Specifically, the need for on-site energy production is too important not to mention.
It’s hard to get a grasp in “layman’s terms” for how much energy is needed that will never be converted to electricity and dumped into the grid.
That's something I think we can change, without getting into the nitty-gritty or just nibbling at the edges of the whole conversion to noncarbon energy sources.
We could go down a nearly endless list of things that need disturbing amounts of energy — normally in the form of heat — to manufacture, but nothing stands out more than steel and concrete.
There are far more energy-intensive materials that are absolutely essential to our modern life and economy, but we use virtually nothing else on the same scale. You can’t build anything without both, and lots of both.
There are only two factors we need to consider here to get a grasp of how energy-intensive their production is — global emissions and temperatures required.
Steel production accounts for an estimated 8% of global carbon emissions. Concrete clocks in at 5%. All of those emissions come from what is essentially on-site power production.
Steel smelters need to use some bituminous coal, also called metallurgical coal, and “bake” it for quite a while at or around 1,100 degrees Celsius just to make it useful in the next step of steel production.
Then that “coking” coal is used to infuse, if you will, the molten iron oxide with carbon-rich gases and trace amounts of other metals to produce steel alloys that are up to snuff for construction.
Concrete is basically just a silicon-rich mix of sand and pebbles, but it needs to go through furnaces that go up to 1,400 degrees Celsius for a long while as well.
For a sense of scale, most of your pots and pans shouldn’t go above 200–250 degrees Celsius.
This is not something that can ever be achieved on an economical scale by paying normal commercial rates for electricity from the grid. The power used to create this kind of heat needs to be generated on-site without interruption 24/7 to be economical.
That's our problem right there. There is no version of renewable energy that can provide a reliable source of energy for these, and many other, chemical reactions.
Batteries cannot provide an economical scale of energy without degrading by cycling too often and without massive capacitors to ramp up energy discharged to the extreme levels required.
Decarbonizing our economy means we need a replacement energy source on-site for steel, concrete, and chemical production that is virtually invisible to us.
However, it isn’t invisible to all. Plans are advancing quickly to substitute hydrogen as a fuel source for these kinds of on-site applications.
For example, a steel smelter in Sweden produced the world’s first hydrogen-powered steel last year. It was introduced in the mill to roll out steel to industry standards which, as you can imagine, takes a lot of energy.
Europe is heavily subsidizing hydrogen production and transportation applications to the tune of tens of billions of dollars within just a handful of years, but is also pursuing new subsidies to use hydrogen in this more obscure manner.
Even over in Australia, a nation heavily invested in coal extraction and exports, Fortescue Metals Chairman Andrew Forrest is pushing for carbon-free steel. Fortescue currently mines iron oxide ore, sends it to Chinese smelters, and then brings it back home.
Plus, all of the timelines for these new applications to be fully scaled up and in operation line up well with the decarbonization of vehicles — somewhere around five years for some projects, with the goal of complete transition within 30 years.
It's a long shot, but it is happening. And the timetables keep moving forward, a rare thing for capital-intensive infrastructure and energy projects.
Make no mistake about it, the new hydrogen paradigm has only just begun. Readers of The Crow’s Nest are already well-positioned with a company at the cutting edge of this trend, and even more opportunities and accelerated growth are in the works.
While we have and will continue to pull in profits from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles worldwide, the same tech will be used to provide virtually unlimited carbon-free power to everything else that we rarely consider.