Empirically Yours

Renewable Energy is Real and Profitable


On his first day in office, President Joe Biden brought the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord, revoked permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline and imposed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some hailed his actions as bold and long overdue while others decried them for destroying jobs and condemning the country to penury.

In all fairness, cancelling Keystone did kill jobs, almost all Canadian, and will stop tar sand oil from being exported from U.S. soil (you didn’t think it was for us, did you? The U.S. is already a net oil exporter). A total of 1,000 people are now out of a job and there won’t be another 10,000 hires for construction. However, Biden plans to create 10 million jobs in the renewable energy industry, on top of the 3 million we’ve already got.

How’s that going to work?

Energy underpins all industry and business around the world, and business is always looking ahead. Renewable energy may seem like science fiction to most of us, but energy intensive businesses have already recognized that renewables are everywhere and that they can build as much as they need, thus controlling this key resource.

For example, in 2019 a new steel mill built its own wind farm.

What? A new steel mill in America? Didn’t someone say that industry is dying?

NUCOR built the first steel mill in the U.S. run entirely on renewable energy using a wind farm they built next door in Missouri, that infamous liberal bastion. Using electric arc furnaces to melt scrap metal, the factory makes rebar for the construction industry. No fossil fuels, no coal, coke or natural gas. This mill created over 250 full-time jobs for the folks that live in or near Sedalia, the site of the factory.

Sure, we sacrifice half a million birds a year to our wind farms in the U.S. But if we sacrificed our house cats, or just kept them inside, we’d save about 2.5 billion. That’s “billion” with a “b.”

NUCOR did most of the financing itself, enabled in part by the lower cost of wind power compared to coal or gas. NUCOR is one of the top 12 steel makers worldwide, but it’s the largest steel company based in the U.S. One of its competitors, U.S. Steel, is adopting renewable energy for one of its mills right now. Renewable energy could help clean up the steel industry, which globally is responsible for 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

But how about cement, since new infrastructure needs both steel and cement?

Cement is the most widely used manufactured material in existence. It is usually made by heating limestone (calcium carbonate) to about 1,500 degrees centigrade to cook away carbon dioxide and leave calcium oxide, the basic ingredient for all types of cement, mortar or concrete. The industry creates about 7% of global CO2 emissions because of the high fuel requirements and release of CO2 into the air.

The industry knows it has to clean up how cement is made or it will be difficult to achieve the CO2 reductions described in the Paris Climate Accord. Options being discussed include a greater use of renewable energy, direct capture of CO2 released during the baking and new recipes for cement itself.

Researchers at UCLA have developed a nearly carbon-neutral product called CO2NCRETE, a cement-like substance made by directly capturing CO2 emissions from industrial activities. Cement naturally absorbs CO2 from the air, a slow process. New recipes for cement may speed this up so that a bridge or road or building made with this product will remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere for years. Since cement is second only to water as the most consumed product on Earth, this is important.

Many other industrial processes rely on very high temperatures, over 1,000 degrees centigrade. An emerging company, Heliogen, has shown that an array of mirrors can precisely focus sunlight onto a reaction vessel reaching this temperature or higher. Imagine, concentrated sunlight could eventually replace fossil fuels in most industrial processes, including making cement, steel from iron ore or scrap metal, glass, electricity and synthetic fuels — even hydrogen by splitting water. And we could do away with solar panels and the problem of safely disposing of their troublesome toxic ingredients altogether.

Heliogen now has support from a Department of Energy grant to build a medium-sized power plant of 300 kilowatts, about one third the size of a typical nuclear power plant of the last century.

Simple commercial logic drives these decisions, not to save the planet, but to save money.

Some people call it “capitalism.”

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.