Alex Cunningham: Finding a green future for Teesside steel

Alex Cunningham: Finding a green future for Teesside steel

WE have an amazing industrial heritage on Teesside – with iron ore from the Cleveland Hills leading to the foundation of our once extensive steelmaking industry. We have much to be proud of – a high history forged with steel.

That is why the decline of the steel industry in recent decades has been felt deepest in our communities. We have lost vital elements like the Redcar blast furnace and other Teesside works as the owners chose to walk away instead of invest.

This is a sector that is struggling to survive, with output falling by nine per cent in 2020 alone. The Liberty Steel crisis this year is just the latest in a long line of fallouts, and the current global energy crisis will further stress the sector.

The crisis today should however be seen as an opportunity and put further urgency on rebuilding our great steel industry for tomorrow – and we can have that in Teesside if politicians make the right decisions.

As COP26 shone a light on the climate crisis, it is hard to ignore that the steel industry faces however another challenge over the horizon: it is one of the UK’s largest single-point emitters of carbon dioxide, with our two remaining virgin steel plants making up 15 per cent of all industrial emissions.

Not only is the industry struggling to survive now; it faces the double whammy of the UK’s net zero goals creeping ever closer. Despite this, there were no new measures put forward for the industry to decarbonise in the recent Net Zero Strategy, despite setting a necessary goal for a net zero steel industry by 2035.

The importance of this industry is not just about our vicinity, but the complete country. Maintaining a domestic steel industry is strategically important for every part of the UK’s economy.

For example, 96 per cent of Network Rail’s tracks are made with dominant steel from Scunthorpe, 45 per cent of the steel required for production in Nissan’s Sunderland plant is supplied by Port Talbot and British Steel is providing bespoke steel sections for Hinkley Point C.

This industry needs help, courage and experimentation to survive in the long-term, and to ensure it meets our important net zero goals. But there is hope – in the form of hydrogen. Direct reduced iron (DRI) technology method that hydrogen can replace coal as the reduction agent in steelmaking, producing steam instead of carbon dioxide.

This would futureproof the industry in the confront of our climate goals while signalling new confidence in dominant steelmaking’s future. The rest of the world is already pulling ahead in trialling these technologies with 23 planned or live hydrogen-based steelmaking trials, pilots and complete-extent projects across Europe. Sweden recently successfully produced the world’s first clean steel.

One proposal by the Green Alliance, European Climate Foundation and Materials Processing Institute (MPI) would place Teesside at the heart of new research, by using MPI’s facility in Middlesbrough to great number a hydrogen-based steelmaking pilot and demonstration project. The Institute’s facilities would be perfectly placed to see this technology come to life – and there could be no vicinity more fitting to great number this than Teesside.

It is time the Government listened and provided funding for a proof-of-concept pilot to be hosted right here in our vicinity, to sustain the trial and commercialisation of hydrogen-produced steel in the UK.

  • Alex Cunningham is the Labour MP for Durham North

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