Steelmaking was once thought to be difficult if not impossible to decarbonize, with a key step in the process fully dependent on coal or natural gas. Well, that was then. The world’s first and biggest full scale green steel plant is taking shape in Sweden, with an assist from green hydrogen. That leaves about 1,000 steel plants around the world yet to decarbonize, but at least it’s a start.
Green Hydrogen To Calm Steel’s Carbon Demon
It’s no secret that steel is a carbon demon. Going by one commonly cited estimate, steel production accounts for 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, in part because gas or coal need to be involved.
Removing fossil energy from that equation is not easy, for sure. But, it is also not impossible. The factor that makes it possible is green hydrogen, which refers to hydrogen pushed from water in an electrolysis system.
The sticky wicket is the source of the electricity to run the electrolyzers. From a save-the-planet standpoint, water electrolysis makes no sense if fossil power plants are the source. However, renewable resources are now available. With the cost of wind and solar continuing to plummet, the economic and the climate cases for green hydrogen are both beginning to build.
Green Hydrogen For Green Steel
The fossil energy grip on steel takes place at various points along the way, particularly in the DRI (short for direct reduced ironmaking) step, which produces metallic iron from iron ore along with a carbon-rich gas. Here’s an explainer from the World Steel Association:
“Direct reduction of iron is the chemical removal (reduction) of oxygen from iron ore in its solid form. The iron used in the steelmaking process is currently chemically reduced from iron ore through the use of fossil resources – natural gas or coal.”
Replacing gas and coal with green hydrogen is a big step in the right direction, though the WSA points out that’s going to be a long row to hoe. As of 2022, they note, about about 76% of the global hydrogen supply currently comes from natural gas, and 23% comes from coal, with green hydrogen barely making a show at less than 0.1%.
In a fact sheet dated June 2022, they cite a model from the International Energy Agency, which anticipates that only 8% of total steel production will rely on green hydrogen to reduce iron ore by 2050.
One big bottleneck is the availability of renewable energy to generate the electricity needed for whole new fleets of electrolyzers. WSA also notes that the hydrogen transmission network needs some work before it makes the A-team.
“There are close to 5,000 km of hydrogen pipelines around the world today, compared with around 3 million km of natural gas transmission pipelines,” WSA explains. “Existing high-pressure natural gas transmission pipes could be converted to deliver pure hydrogen in the future if they are no longer used for natural gas, but their suitability must be assessed on a case- by-case basis and will depend on the type of steel used in the pipeline and the purity of hydrogen being transported.”
“A further challenge is that three times more volume is needed to supply the same amount of energy as natural gas, they add.
The H2 Green Steel Solution
Steel makers don’t need to take a number and wait for green hydrogen, though. They can overcome the pipeline hurdle by making their own green hydrogen on site, and they can pre-pay renewable energy developers to secure a sufficient supply of clean kilowatts for the electrolyzers.
That’s the plan for the startup H2 Green Steel, which is building a new plant billed as “the world’s first large-scale green steel plant in Northern Sweden.”
H2 Green Steel has already raised millions for the new steel plant since launching in 2020. The latest news broke on January 22, when the company announced new funding additions including a €250 million grant from the EU Innovation Fund, bringing the total to €6.5 billion or about $7 billion USD.
With green hydrogen in the mix, H2 Green estimates that its steel will be produced with 95% lower CO2 emissions compared to coke-fired blast furnaces, leading the company to describe itself as “driving one of the largest climate impact initiatives globally.”
“The construction of the flagship green steel plant in Boden, with integrated green hydrogen and green iron production, is well under way,” they note, towards a planned start in 2025.
“A large portion of the electricity needed has been secured in long-term power purchase agreements, and half of the initial yearly volumes of 2.5 million tonnes of near zero steel have been sold in binding five- to seven-year customer agreements,” they add.
Renewable Energy It Is
That reference to a “large portion of the electricity” sounds rather vague, but in a recap of the project last fall H2 Green clarified that they mean renewable energy. Here’s the explainer from the company (breaks added for readability):
“H2 Green Steel’s plant in Boden, Sweden will be the first of its kind to combine production of green hydrogen, green iron, and green steel in a single flow, using renewable electricity throughout the production process.
“Europe’s largest electrolyzer will produce the hydrogen used in the direct reduction-reactor process. It is in the direct reduction step that the bulk of the emissions reduction is achieved.
“A hot sponge iron product is then processed through an electric arc furnace together with steel scrap to a homogenous melt of liquid steel then onward to continuous casting and rolling as well as fining.”
The Boden plant is just for starters. H2 Green is already planning on an “exponential acceleration of its decarbonization impact,” with “new industry verticals leveraging green hydrogen” playing a big role.
The Exponential Roadmap
Speaking of exponential, H2 Green is part of an effort aimed at accelerating the decarbonization of hard-to-decarbonize industries, called the Exponential Roadmap Initiative. ERI launched in 2018 and it has expanded its network since then, describing itself as “an accredited partner of the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions’ Race To Zero and a founding partner of the 1.5°C Supply Chain Leaders and the SME Climate Hub.”
The the aim is scale up high-impact climate solutions and close a gap in carbon accounting systems, which have been leaving some clean tech startups out in the cold.
“Established companies can set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets for their operations. For an industrial cleantech company building an operation from scratch, other targets are more relevant,” H2 Green explains. “The Exponential Roadmap Initiative presents a framework in which a cleantech company can screen and verify its ambition and ability to scale climate solutions – exponentially.”
The idea is to provide the investor community with some firm, science based guideposts for investing in new planet-saving technologies, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image: On-site green hydrogen production will help resolve a bottleneck in the green steel industry (courtesy of H2 Green Steel).
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