Newsletter: Cleaning up steel, quicker than we thought possible

Plus, game-changing grid equipment and the overhaul of a Trump-era policy bode well for renewables.

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You love to see more quickly than might have seemed possible” invoked to describe the progress of a breakthrough that could eliminate massive amounts of carbon emissions.

That line comes from freelancer Ingrid Lobet’s dispatch on advancements in cleaning up steelmaking. As she describes, the stakes are enormous:

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Steelmaking accounts for 7 to 8 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use. That’s largely because traditional steel production burns coal, both to heat the furnaces and to drive the reaction that frees pure iron from iron ore. There are alternatives, but they aren’t cheap or easy. 

But now major steel buyers, such as car manufacturers, are under pressure to drive down the emissions associated with building their products. Steelmakers are eager to get out in front of the trend. And now that the industry is taking it seriously, it’s finding ways forward.

Ralf Pfitzner, global lead for sustainability at Volkswagen, said the steel industry is now at a tipping point. For years, he said, VW, a major buyer of steel, watched and in some cases invested in small pilot projects that demonstrated cleaner steelmaking processes. But these small and piecemeal efforts were​“not really moving the needle.”

Now it’s different, he said. In Europe, all major steelmakers have announced plans to scale up an alternative to coal-fired production: using hydrogen fuel made via electrolysis to create​“green steel.” This term refers to steel that is manufactured using emerging and novel methods that dramatically reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the production process.

A parallel effort is pushing banks to use their lending power to nudge steel facilities in a cleaner direction.

Wide-scale change in how we make steel isn’t going to happen overnight. Some particular hang-ups are:

  • Governments have been slower on the uptake, which gives some companies cover to resist change until policymakers demand it.
  • The pathway of using clean hydrogen to replace coal-burning steel production depends on sufficient supplies of clean hydrogen, which is still in its infancy.

But this sector mirrors so many others in the climate space: Things that seemed impossible when nobody was seriously trying to do them start looking way more possible when the work begins in earnest. 

As Ingrid concludes:

The bottom line? You still can’t walk into an auto dealership and see cars made with low- or zero-carbon steel. But the world has changed fast enough that it’s no longer a ridiculous proposition.

In other news:

Check out Jeff St. John’s account of how the U.S. Department of Energy is preparing for a time when spinning turbines in fossil power plants go away and the inverters attached to solar panels and batteries must take over the job of maintaining a safe grid frequency. This is a sea change in how the electrical grid operates, and Jeff unspools the challenges and the early successes in paving the new pathway.

Federal grid regulator FERC just undid a Trump-era policy that would have artificially raised prices on certain renewable power plants, limiting their ability to compete in the Mid-Atlantic grid known as PJM. The dreaded MOPR” is no more, which is good news for developers planning renewables expansions in that region. 

And we’ve got the latest installment of Charging Up, chronicling women’s career moves in the climatetech sector. This data point caught my eye: 

The leadership ranks at the U.S. Department of Energy are more diverse than ever before. DOE appointees are now 58 percent women, 58 percent BIPOC and 21 percent identifying as LGBTQ+.

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.