U.S. Steel Pioneers battery-powered locomotives, 1st in North America

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The United States Steel Corporation, or U.S. Steel, advanced with a crucial step forward this week in its ongoing commitment to goals such as sustainability and environmental protection of the communities it serves. Some considered trains and steel the core backbone of our country for workers and jobs at one time. Both are now changing as a result of advances in sustainable energy technologies. The steel industry has had and will continue to have a significant influence on the economy and culture of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, but even beyond those regions as a cleantech pioneer.

This debut of two all-electric locomotives in the Pittsburgh area, replacing locomotives built in 1964 and 1974, strikes a chord of history and new beginnings. Clean trains, green steel, and grandpa is beaming about what this means for his great-great grandchildren and all the beings around his old hometown.

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CleanTechnica editor Zach Shahan’s great-grandfather was a muscular and nimble steelworker. He slept and lived across the road from the largest railroad in the country at the time. As a result, discovering that U.S. Steel is going green is the most appreciated news this week for me. Like so many children and grandchildren in Coketown (a now-disappeared workers’ village across from the trains), I was lulled to sleep by trains. The railroad sounds are a warm, good memory, a reminder of the strength of grandpa, but headaches also accompanied visits to grandpa. We knew much else about the effects of pollution back then. Steel production and shipment have had and will continue to have an enormous impact on the quality of the air we breathe.

A First for North America

U.S. Steel shares that the company converted two of its diesel switcher locomotives at the Mon Valley Works’ Edgar Thomson and Clairton Plants to state-of-the-art battery-operated locomotives. Innovative Rail Technologies (IRT), a provider of customized lithium-ion propulsion solutions for the locomotive rail market, built the locomotives. U.S. Steel invested $2.3 million into a switch to electric from diesel-powered locomotives, and got an extra $4.5 million from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). That was partially funded by its share of the 2017 Volkswagen settlement. According to DEP spokesperson Lauren Camarda, the grant to U.S. Steel was the largest ever given from the Dieselgate funds.

“DEP supports the project and applauds U.S. Steel for its commitment to replacing diesel locomotives built in 1964 and 1974 with state-of-the-art battery electric locomotives ahead of schedule,” Camarda said.

WVIA, covering the story from Pennsylvania, reports that U.S. Steel unveiled a new battery-powered locomotive for its Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh last week. The company is switching two of its 10 locomotives for use in its local operations. The battery-powered locomotives, unlike the diesel locomotives they will replace, will emit no carbon dioxide or particulate matter. The new locomotives will be used to haul iron ore, coke, and steel at Clairton and Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock and will save 40 thousand gallons of diesel fuel a year.

At an unveiling ceremony in Clairton, U.S. Steel CEO David Burritt pointed out that the battery-powered trains would be the first of their kind in North America. “At U.S. Steel, our mission is profitable steel solutions for people and our most important customer: the planet,” Burritt said. “And when you have reduced emissions, reduced fuel consumption, and also even reduced sound with this innovative technology, it really says volumes about what we’re doing as a company.” In the Yard

“The technology first has to take root here at places like U.S. Steel that want to embrace the technology,” Mike Nicoletti of Innovative Rail Technologies said. “If you look at the industry historically, all the major technological changes happen in the yard in the industrial settings before it migrated into the (long) haul service. So this is actually an ideal logical place to start in.”

The switch to battery-powered locomotives will save 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year at the facilities, minimize airborne particulate matter, and demonstrate the company’s use of emerging technology to help reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

“We are proud to bring this innovative and sustainable technology to U. S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works,” said Ira Dorfman, Principal, IRT. “Battery propulsion technology is already in use throughout many modes of transportation, and rail transportation is the next step.”

Mike Nicoletti of Innovative Rail Technologies, which built the locomotives, said the technology is still in its infancy, and U.S. Steel’s sprawling steel facilities were an ideal setting for such a new technology. “For U.S. Steel, you have a dedicated captive fleet of locomotives that serves locally, and that gives you a more predictable charging schedule, more predictable routing. That’s kind of the advantage where you get into pure electrification,” Nicoletti said.

Battery-powered rail may be far away from long-haul rail, but for short trips, it is feasible, Nicoletti said. The two locomotives would use lithium-ion batteries to power 1,300 horsepower engines.

The batteries within the locomotives are expected to last up to 12 years. After that, they still have plenty of life left! The batteries may still be used for non-motive applications like solar and wind energy collection and electrical grid support.

Encouraging, But Considerably More is Needed

According to Reid Frazier of WVIA and Pittsburg NPR, this is merely a small portion of U.S. Steel’s emissions. The new locomotives, according to the company, will save about a third of a ton of particulate matter per year. Yes, that equates to 7,000 vehicles on the road. They need to do all 10.

These emissions reductions represent only a small portion of the company’s local pollution footprint. According to the United States EPA, the company emits nearly 4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the Mon Valley. It is one of Pennsylvania’s top greenhouse gas emitters. The 40,000 gallons of diesel saved by the locomotives represent a mere 400 metric tons of CO2.

U.S. Steel is by far the most significant single source of particulate pollution in Allegheny County. According to state data, it emits more than 350 tons of particulate pollution per year. Allegheny County was required by the EPA to rewrite its pollution permit for the Clairton plant. Clairton and Braddock are two environmental justice areas, as designated by the state.

“Reducing diesel emissions in and around ports, intermodal facilities, railyards, and distribution centers is one of the top priorities” for the grant program, Camarda said, “as these types of facilities emit large quantities of harmful air pollution, and many are co-located alongside environmental justice areas, some of the most disproportionately impacted communities in Pennsylvania.”

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