Electric is the future of Swedish steel

Photo: Jernkontoret

As the Swedish steel industry sets its sights on fossil-free production, electric heating solutions have never been hotter. Helena Malmqvist, Research Manager at the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association, says knowledge is key to expanding the electrification of Swedish steel.

Helena Malmqvist, Research Manager at the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association

Jernkontoret is the Swedish iron and steel producers’ association. It promotes the interests and competitiveness of the industry, focusing on key issues such as process efficiency, innovation and sustainability.

To produce fossil-free steel, you have to use fossil-free electricity in the heating process,” Malmqvist says.This is something we have access to in Sweden, which is one reason why electric heating is such a hot topic here.

Jernkontoret has worked closely with the Swedish steel industry to develop a joint vision for 2050 and a climate road map on how to get there. One key objective is to achieve fossil-free steel production by 2045. This would be no mean feat, since the Swedish steel industry currently accounts for some 11 percent, or 6 million tons, of Sweden’s total CO2 emissions12 percent of which comes from using fossil fuels for heating and heat treatment.

Substantial emissions cut

According to Jernkontoret’s estimates, electrical heating systems with existing technology could replace around 80 percent of the fuel used for heat treatment and about 20 percent of the fuel used for heating. This would reduce annual CO2 emissions from these processes by more than 40 percent, or 300,000 tons.

So why is the industry still skeptical about making the switch?
“I don’t think it necessarily comes down to skepticism anymore,” says Malmqvist. “Most companies understand the cost, efficiency and environmental benefits of electric heating. However, the electrical supply needs to be cost efficient and reliable.”

Malmqvist believes that more companies would be inclined to invest in electric heating if they had the opportunity to try it out first.

Knowledge is the key

In 2020, a collaborative project involving several of the largest Swedish steel manufacturers was launched with the aim of exploring the prospects for electrification. The project seeks to clarify important factors and limitations for different types of electrical heating systems. It is financed by the Swedish Energy Agency, Jernkontoret and participating companies, with project management from engineering consultancy COWI.

“We believe knowledge is the key to expanding the adoption of electric heating processes in the Swedish steel industry,” Malmqvist says. “Through this project, we’re enabling a group of steel producers to test electric heating in their process and on their materials. We believe it will accelerate change because all the participants will have firsthand experience of electric heating solutions.”

Electric heating makes sense

While Sweden may be one of the most advanced countries when it comes to electrification, it is by no means alone in pursuing more sustainable steel production goals.

“Sweden has an advantage because of our unrivaled access to fossil-free electricity,” Malmqvist explains, adding that as more countries seek to comply with the Paris Agreement and the European 2030 Climate Target Plan, reducing fossil fuel usage will become more of a necessity than a choice.

“Electric heating makes sense for a variety of reasons: it’s sustainable, efficient and better for the bottom line,” she says. Meanwhile, alongside stricter regulations, more customers and consumers are demanding sustainable products. In the long term, we believe steel producers will have little choice but to move in a more climate-smart direction.

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A project known as Electrical Material Heating (in Swedish, elektrisk ämnesvärming) is evaluating the potential of replacing gas-fired furnaces with electrically heated furnaces for material heating.

The SEK 3.4 million (USD 400,000) project, which began in January 2020 and is due to run until mid 2021, is financed by the Swedish Energy Agency, hosted by Jernkontoret and project managed by consultancy firm COWI. The other companies involved in the project are SSAB, Outokumpu, Uddeholm AB, Ovako, Linde and Kanthal.