Sweden opens world’s first sustainable steel plant

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has opened the world’s first plant to produce steel using hydrogen instead of coal. This took place in Lulea, in the far north on the border with Finland. In 20 years’ time Sweden only wants to produce sustainable steel.

This is a pilot plant of the Swedish-Finnish steel company SSAB, the iron ore producer LKAB and the energy company Vattenfall. Normally, steel is produced using iron ore and coke made from coal. This releases large quantities of CO2 which contribute to climate change. The hydrogen used in the Swedish steelworks is produced using sustainable electricity from, among other sources, hydropower.

The transition from coal to hydrogen in steel production is expected to reduce CO2 emissions in Sweden by ten percent in the long term. The government therefore speaks of a historic day.

In the Netherlands, steel producer Tata in IJmuiden emits the most CO2 after RWE’s coal-fired power stations in Delfzijl and those of Uniper on the Maasvlakte. This is twice as much CO2 as all households combined will have to emit in the next ten years according to the climate agreement. The coal-fired power stations must all be closed by 2030, but the government has allowed the Tata steelworks to remain open.

Developments in Sweden are being followed with interest at Tata Steel – formerly Hoogovens. “I think it’s fantastic that work is being done on CO2 reduction in this way and we’re looking at this with interest because we also want to switch to hydrogen in IJmuiden in the long term,” says Annemarie Manger, sustainability manager at Tata Steel. The company is working with chemical company Nouryon and the Port of Amsterdam on a 100 megawatt hydrogen plant. This is larger than what is currently available in the Netherlands, but only provides a fraction of Tata’s energy needs.

That’s why Tata doesn’t think that hydrogen will play a major role in IJmuiden in the short term. Hydrogen is only sustainable if it is generated with sustainable electricity. “In the case of Tata Steel, that would mean that we would need the electricity from just about all the wind farms at sea that are currently being constructed off the Dutch coast,” says Manger. Moreover, coal is currently not only fuel for the heating process in the blast furnaces, but oxidation of the coke also provides the chemical compound that turns iron ore into steel.

For the time being, therefore, Tata wants to reduce CO2 emissions with the aid of CCS, the English abbreviation for the capture and storage of CO2. The CO2 will then be captured at the chimney and transported via pipelines to empty natural gas fields under the North Sea. Over the next ten years, this technique should reduce the steel company’s CO2 emissions from 12 to 8 million tonnes. In the climate agreement, the government has made a subsidy available for CCS, much to the anger of Greenpeace and others, who consider it a wasteful delay in the energy transition.

Research bureau CE Delft, commissioned by the European Parliament, has conducted research into the use of hydrogen in industry, among other things. “Within Europe a great deal is possible, certainly if less clean products imported from outside the EU are taxed. But it is still very expensive,” says director Frans Rooijers.

“You can see that new technologies are being developed with the help of subsidies, but it is an illusion to think that they can compete with fossil fuels as long as they are so cheap and do not include the real costs of climate change” In Sweden and Norway renewable electricity is comparatively cheap because of the availability of hydropower.

It may therefore be some time before sustainable steel is produced in the Netherlands. Yet Annemarie Manger of Tata Steel calls the development in Sweden revolutionary. “It is a first step in a major development.”