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Chatting with Valentin Vogl — 'Steel Beyond Coal'

Beach and blast furnaces via Matthijs on Flickr

Guest: Valentin Vogl, Steel Decarbonization Researcher

Abbie Veitch, Currently’s Editor-in-Chief, chats with Valentin Vogl, a PhD researcher at Lund University whose thesis, 'Steel Beyond Coal', focuses on the intersection of rapid decarbonization and social justice in the global steel industry.

Join us this Thursday Feb. 16, at 2 pm ET for a live version of this conversation with Valentin, Abbie, and Eric.

 This Friday I'm defending my PhD thesis 'Steel Beyond Coal'.

With nearly 6 years of research on steel decarbonisation coming to an end, here comes a very long 🧵about steel, coal and what we can do radically reduce carbon emissions in line with a just transformation. pic.twitter.com/Plr84U65zw— Valentin Vogl (@valenvogl) January 30, 2023 

Outline of the chat:

  • What brought you to this area of study?

  • Overview of the most important findings from your research

  • What would a just transition away from coal would look like for the steel industry?

  • What are the major changes that people can push for from the steel industry?

  • Anything else that you feel people often misunderstand about this issue?

(All discussion paraphrased unless in direct quotes)

Abbie: Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to this area of study?

Valentin: I did my bachelor's and master's in Chemical and Process Engineering; the typical career path is the oil industry, petrochemicals industry, or pharmaceuticals. I didn't really hear the calling from these branches.

I learned about steel and how its made in my studies — the current and old ways of making steel, using coal. The steel industry uses massive amounts of coal, a sixth of global coal consumption is used for steel production. Around 8%, maybe even 9%, of global greenhouse gas emissions come from producing steel.

When I started studying this in 2017, one or two steel companies in the world had a plan for how to reduce their dependency on coal. Which is not very much given that the Paris Agreement was already out.

Abbie: Can you give an overview of the most important findings from your research?

Valentin: I looked into the innovation part of this transition process — so coming up with new technologies and mainstreaming them, along with non-technological options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I also looked into the other part of this — which is getting out of the dirty stuff, mostly metallurgical coal.

And, I looked into blast furnace as the main emission source and really the heart of current steel production processes.

It’s always difficult to summarize, five years and four papers in a few words, but it became very clear that we have to get out of coal and out of blast furnace ironmaking if we want to reach climate targets.

The blast furnace has been the main technological principle for ironmaking for hundreds of years and one way to do this is through electrification.

There is a danger here of over-focusing on technological solutions. It is probably a bad idea to just substitute the amount of steel we make today with coal, with electricity and hydrogen. The electricity needs would be huge, the land use, and other issues would be huge.

It requires a much more systematic restructuring of how we produce new steel. The Global North needs to lead the way, because the Global North has used and benefited from steel for much longer than the Global South, and has been responsible for the most emissions related to steel.

Now the [Global North] is tasked by the Paris Agreement and should ethically reduce its reliance on steel, as well as work on recycling and reusing much more. They also need to work on other non-technological solutions to minimize the impact of steel production (e.g. air pollution, water pollution, and extractive conflicts.)

Overall, it's a structural change that needs to happen. And the switch of technology is a part of that, but it's not the whole thing.

Abbie: Can you tell us more about what a just transition away from coal would look like for the steel industry?

Valentin: At my PhD defense, someone asked me if the urgency of climate action would take primacy over making a just transition, and I couldn't disagree more.

I think the question is — Is it a just transition or no transition?

The steel transition is different from the rest of the coal-to-renewables transition — because coal might disappear but steel will not disappear. Steel has to be rethought and how we produce steel has to be rethought, but we will still use steel in the future. So the industry is in a spot where they will have a lot of leverage over how they want to make these technological switches.

The pressure needs to come from civil society. The alignment of the technological switch to the other issues — human rights issues, supply chain, and biodiversity — this pressure needs to come from civil society.

It's a very technical topic and it's often invisible, so people don't really know about steel. It’s getting better, but it's a difficult topic to get people's attention.

It's crucial to communicate these issues to wider audiences and inform people that they actually have a stake.

Abbie: What would you say are the major changes that people can push for in the steel industry, to make this transition?

Valentin: Blast furnaces and the major assets in steel mills, get refurbished — which is called realigning — this happens regularly every 15 to 20 years.

A realigning of the gas burners locks in coal use and thereby emissions for a decade or two. So one thing that really needs to be avoided in any integrated steel mill is these reinvestments into blast furnaces.

Each steelmaker needs a plan or a roadmap for how they will get out of coal, so that their next relining will be avoided.

Abbie: Is there anything else that you feel people often misunderstand about this issue?

Valentin: There are three major things I can point to:

1) Coal is needed for steel production, there are plenty of examples of how this isn't true. We can recycle steel, which doesn't use coal. We have produced steel from biomass and electricity in the past 100 years. There is steel made with fossil gas today, that also doesn't use coal.

There are reasons why we use coal today, and we have to question those reasons to understand that the change is much more systemic. We need to get from a coal-based system into a renewable space.

2) Steel is essential for our lives, for my life certainly that is true. However, this narrative is used by industry and other actors to justify why they are not willing to reduce steel production or consumption. This argument is used to stall change and stall progress. We should question who is benefiting from steel and how much certain people are using steel.

3) The idea that we can just “fix” the coal-based steel production system. Often steel makers suggest that we just use carbon capture and storage technology, and then everything will be fine. This idea has been around for over two decades, and there isn't a single steel mill in the world that uses carbon capture and storage for a blast furnace.

In most cases, it's not gonna happen, we have to understand that this technological promise of carbon capture and storage is used as a means to keep the blast furnace alive and not make the more radical change into renewable energy that is needed.

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