Steel – The fuel behind renewable energy
Energy transformation is happening all around the world, and renewable energy is at the center of this transformation, for a less carbon-intensive society. Renewable energy is becoming a strategic priority across nations and heavy investments are being made in this field. Solar, wind, geothermal and hydro are the main renewable energy types, out of which solar and wind energy have a very high percentage of investments
This puts steel at the center stage of this transition since steel is the most intensively used material for building the infrastructure that underpins renewable energy production. Steel plays a vital role in cultivating all sorts of renewable energies, especially solar and wind. It occupies an excellent position in converting solar energy into electricity, as well as hot water and serves as a base for solar thermal panels, heat exchangers, tanks, and pumps.
Each new megawatt (MW) of solar power requires between 35-45 tons of steel and each new megawatt of wind power requires between 120-180 tons of steel.
Solar Industry – Types and Scale of Production
The solar market is divided into three areas – Utility-Scale, Commercial and Residential.
Utility-scale projects - A utility-scale project is a solar energy project which produces at least 10 MW of energy. India installed 41.7GW of cumulative utility-scale solar capacity as of Dec. 31, 2021. It has another 44.6GW in the pipeline. That translates into a requirement of around 1.3 lakh tons of steel in the coming years. These projects are the largest consumers of steel and produce a standard 100-300 MW of solar energy in usual cases, however, some developments are now targeting an energy generation of 1000 MW. These projects cater to utility companies.
Commercial and Industrial (C&I) solar projects – The most common types of installation for commercial and industrial projects are ground-mounted and rooftop solar systems. The size of these projects tends to be smaller than the utility-scale projects, ranging between 1-2 MW. C&I projects supply power to corporate organizations and industrial plants.
Residential solar projects – Although these projects are the smallest in size when compared to their utility and C&I counterparts, the residential sector is the fastest-growing solar project segment. The scale of these projects ranges from 5-20 kilowatts. The participants are generally homeowners, contractors, installers, and solar energy equipment manufacturers.
Stainless steel is a perfect choice for solar panel frames because it is dense, high in strength, and has the highest corrosion resistance than other light metals. From ancillary components like frames, fasteners, and connectors, or the solar roof panels or the downstream equipment like tanks and heat exchangers, stainless steel has a role to play. Stainless steel can also endure harsh environments with extreme heat and sunlight for many years. Most solar plants are designed to last a lifetime, which makes stainless steel material of choice, yet again. It has a long life and excellent recyclability and at the end of the life cycle, 100% of the stainless steel can be reused.
The rapid growth in wind energy installations in India over the last decade and increasing wind turbine sizes is resulting in the wind industry doubling its steel consumption. The wind energy sector in India is divided into two onshore and offshore farms, both of which are fabricated from steel. While onshore wind farms are relatively small and generate around 2-3 MW of power per turbine, offshore farms are much larger with each turbine generating power of around 5-8 MW. Steel is critical for both onshore and offshore wind turbines, making up 20% and 90% of the turbine mass respectively.
An average wind turbine consumes around 140 tons of steel is used. From the tower to the screws and studs, every part of a wind turbine depends on iron and steel. The majority of steel is used to make the tower, which is the foundation on which the blades turn to generate energy. There are different types of towers such as steel-concrete hybrid towers, steel truss towers, and steel lattice towers. However, 90% of the wind towers are tubular steel towers. Steel’s non-corrosive properties maximise the lifetime of wind turbines and minimise maintenance costs. Steel provides a strong base to support the height and heavy weight of the turbine. Steel is also flexible enough material that allows prevents the tower from breaking.
Apart from the tubular towers, there are other types of towers with varied proportions of steel:
Lattice Towers: - These towers use welded steel instead of steel sheets. The advantage of lattice towers is that they are extremely cost efficient as compared to tubular towers since they use just about half as much material as tubular towers. Yet they are as stiff and reliable as tubular towers. However, aesthetically the lattice towers are at a disadvantage. In terms of visual appearance, lattice towers lag far behind tubular towers.
Bolted Steel Towers: The bolted steel towers are made up of several tower sections made out of steel shells, mounted on top of each other. The sections are assembled on the site. The steel shells are bent steel plates, which are bolted together with tension-controlled bolts to form the tower. Bolted steel towers allow for very tall heights and are easy to erect. These towers also require very low maintenance throughout their lifetime
Steel hybrid Towers: These towers are made up of concrete and steel. The lower part of the traditional steel tubular tower is replaced with the concrete segment. This design offers the greatest strength and longevity for wind power generation but is limited to onshore applications.
Whatever the source of energy, steel has a vital role to play in energy production as well as distribution besides improving energy efficiency. The steel industry is really a pioneer in sustainable practices and environmental protection. Whether it is serving as a base for thermal panels, heat exchanges, tanks, and, pumps, or being the primary material for the turbines used in wind energy systems, steel is imperative.
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