Renewables – it’s not all high tech!

A recent edition of UK-based magazine New Scientist featured an article with the headline ‘Our Green Future Starts Now’ and continued to state that, “renewable electricity is growing faster than any other source”.  Good news for the movement towards a green economy, reduction of greenhouse gases and concern for global climate change.  Wind, solar and hydroelectric power were highlighted as the processes that will deliver this green electrical generation capacity.  Where this power will be produced is dependent on the availability of wind, sun and water in quantities that make the process economically viable. 

Throughout the Middle East and across North Africa, water is scarce while sun is abundantly available, making solar an obvious source of renewable energy.

However, most of the countries in these regions have significant oil and gas reserves and it is difficult to wean them away from these existing cheap sources of energy.  On the other hand, at least four countries – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel – lack domestic sources of fossil fuels (Israel is developing its offshore discoveries) and are highly dependent on imported energy purchased in the form of coal, oil and natural gas.  Indeed, Jordan is one of the most dependent countries in the world, with 96% of primary energy imported from neighboring Egypt.  In these countries, there are significant efforts to harness renewable sources, notably solar, with Israel a world leader in technology development.  On the other hand, smart, inexpensive, low-tech options work wonderfully well.  Travel through these countries and you will be struck by the near ubiquity of passive solar systems mounted on roofs, providing hot water and heating to people at minimal cost.

At the other end of the scale there is Iceland, where a magnificent 85% of primary energy is obtained from renewables – hydro and thermal power sources.

The remaining 15% comes in the form of imported petroleum products that are almost exclusively used for transportation. Then there is the poster nation for renewables, Brazil, which runs a world-class economy (the B in BRICs) with 47.3% of primary energy coming from renewables.

Brazil is well worth a second look.  Internationally famous for making the move to bio-fuels in the 1970s, road transport throughout the country now runs on gasoline that is mostly ethanol produced from sugar cane or diesel that contains a minimum of 5% bio-diesel from soja.  In more detail, the 47.3% renewables is made up of 15.2% hydro power, 10.1% wood and charcoal, 18.2% ethanol from sugar cane and 3.8% other sources, principally biomass. Further, the 15.2% hydro power drives 73.7% of installed electrical generation and the 10.1% wood and charcoal underpins an iron and steel industry that ranks 9th in the world in terms of production.

Brazil is rich in high-purity iron ore and devoid of metallurgical coal required to produce coke used in conventional iron and steel production.  The ores of the Iron Quadrangle in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the southeastern part of Brazil, have been known and exploited since the early colonisation of the country and form one centre of iron and steel production.  Further north, the development of the giant Carajas iron ore deposits on the southern margin of the Amazon rainforests in the 1980s provoked the formation of a second centre of production, largely in the state of Maranon.  Brazil’s installed iron and steel making capacity is among the most advanced and efficient in the world, producing a high-quality, low-cost product, and yet a little known fact it that charcoal is used extensively as a primary fuel source in smelting pig iron.

Brazil is the only country in the world producing pig iron in charcoal blast furnaces.  This implies a reduction of greenhouse gases emissions during the industrial process, while the low sulphur content of the charcoal fuel produces a cleaner, higher-quality raw steel product.  Indeed, slabs and billets of Brazilian interstitial steel are much in demand in the US, where they are pressed into consumer items such as car body parts, washing machine cases and fridge doors.

Lacking metallurgical coal, charcoal has been used in iron and steel making in Brazil since the first modern furnaces were installed in Minas Gerais in the 1930s.  Initially, local forests were cut down to supply the wood that was converted into charcoal.  However, iron and steel producers in Minas Gerais soon found that virgin forest sources were limited and began buying up land and planting eucalyptus trees to assure a sustainable source of fuel. 

In the north of Brazil, smelting ores from Carajas also started out using charcoal from wood cut from virgin forests, moving more recently towards using eucalyptus trees grown in sustainable plantations.  Unfortunately, the charcoal industry in the Amazon basin has had a bad record of human rights abuses.

Child labour and slave labour have been found among the numerous small-scale logging and charcoal producing operations scattered in the forests.  In 2006, and again in 2011, the Ford motor company took action to investigate and alter its procurement processes to avoid the use of Brazilian steel produced using charcoal coming from suppliers implicated in human rights abuses.

Brazil has moved to limit deforestation and address human rights abuse.  In April 2012, the Brazilian Charcoal Sustainability Protocol came into force under which the steel industry is committed to socially responsible and environmentally sustainable charcoal production.  One of the most important objectives in the Protocol is for the steel industry to ensure that, by 2016, 100% of the charcoal will come from planted woodlands.  Between 2011 and 2012, steel industry owned plantations – as a source for charcoal – increased their share from 80% to 86%. The integrated steel companies that manufacture charcoal own 5,070km2 of plantations and promote the development of responsibly managed plantations owned by third parties.  The question now is, can socially and environmentally responsible charcoal production supply the future demands of the iron and steel industry as it continues to grow in response to global market opportunities?

By Ian Thomson, On Common Ground Consultants Inc.

Ian Thomson is a Principal and Co-Founder of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.

[email protected]

Recent Posts