Welsh steel: Can the industry ever go green as country aims for carbon neutral?

The steelworks at Port Talbot employs over 4,000 people.

With Wales set to go carbon neutral by 2050, how does one of our biggest industries plan to go green?

Tata Steel is at the heart of Port Talbot, producing five million tonnes of steel slabs every year. It employs more than 4,000 people at its plant in Wales and 8,500 people across the UK overall.  

Steel is a core material found in things from cars to baked-bean tins but the way it is currently produced at Port Talbot uses huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which is harmful to the environment. The future of the steelworks has been in question several times in recent years, with fears production could be moved overseas and despite it being a crucial part of Port Talbot's economy.

Tata Steel says it has been playing its part and looking at ways to make its plant more environmentally friendly.

Martin Brunnock, a spokesperson on decarbonisation at the company, says it is aiming to have a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and be fully net-zero by 2050.

Mr Brunnock said: "I think you can decarbonise the steel industry and at the same time create new green jobs, which we don't even know exist yet.

"We've been talking to different partners about what other industries who could partner with us on this site. For example, if you did carbon capture utilisation storage you need partners to work with and create new jobs and we've got skills in this area to support that."

Martin Brunnock is looking into ways Tata Steel can decarbonise but says direction is needed from the UK Government.

Mr Brunnock says even in the short-term the company has been working on ways to reduce its environmental impact.

He says it has increased the amount of scrap it recycles in the liquid steel plant from 15% to 20% and for every percentage of scrap recycled, he says it saves 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per annum. But he feels the responsibility of decarbonising cannot solely be on companies.

"The massive costs of decarbonising are huge and it can't all be for business and industry," he explained.

"From government, what we need is help on decision-making on where we go in the future.

"If we had a lead from the UK Government on 'this is where we're investing, this is where we think the future lies', then we can align our plans to that."

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We are already working closely with Britain’s steel sector to support its transition to a low carbon future through our £315 million Industrial Energy Transformation Fund and the £250 million Clean Steel Fund.

“Our Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy sets out how we are supporting businesses with high energy use to cut their bills and reduce carbon emissions in a way that prevents industrial activity from being outsourced overseas and supports competitiveness, jobs and clean growth.”

Some funding is also coming from Innovate UK, the UK Government’s Innovation Agency.

It is supporting the first phase of the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC), which aims to help large companies in the region decarbonise. It is made up of a range of industries including oil refining, paper, nickel, coin production and steel.

Those leading the project say the focus is on stimulating "significant clean growth, creating more jobs and opening up opportunities nationally and internationally for UK businesses."

But part of the role of SWIC is to also help secure economic resilience for Welsh industry and local communities by making sure operations continue in Wales.

5 millions tonnes of steel slabs are made in Port Talbot each year.

Christopher Williams, the interim lead of SWIC, thinks it is great chance for sectors like steel to have a greener outlook and secure their future in Wales.

"This is a huge opportunity for us. The fact is if the region is not developing the net-zero infrastructure that industry will need, industry will leave.

"So from that perspective we need to make sure south Wales has the infrastructure that industry needs to make things in a net-zero way. "

Mr Williams says commitments to decarbonise will actually bring new jobs, inward investment and a whole range of new technology to areas like Port Talbot.

But the present problem remains. Steel production still needs huge amounts of carbon to produce the metal so common in our lives. One idea for the future of production, is to use hydrogen as the power source to make it.

John Maddy is the director of the University of South Wales' Hydrogen Research and Development Centre. He believes Wales needs to diversify the way it decarbonises and that hydrogen is a great way of doing so - as you can use the existing processes that use fossil fuels and change them to hydrogen. Mr Maddy admits it is not as simple as it sounds and there still needs to be a lot more research but it could be the future.

In the years to come Mr Maddy believes we could start to see hydrogen used in our day-to-day lives, for fuel in larger transport vehicles like buses and trains as well as to power household boilers.

John Maddy is an expert on hydrogen. He is looking into how it could be a clean fuel for the future.

He also thinks it could be a way to make steel and that could be a path forward for Port Talbot.

"The easiest way to decarbonise is to shut down [the steelworks]. That's not going to do anything for the economy or the livelihood and the health and wellbeing of the people in the area.

"So we need to actively look at decarbonising that industry, yet maintaining competitiveness of that industry in south Wales.

"The industry could shut down here but that wouldn't address the problem, carbon is a global problem and all we'll be doing is off-shoring those emissions."

Professor Calvin Jones, from Cardiff Business School, says there is no obvious solution to making steel production green at Port Talbot and turning to hydrogen could be a tall order for Wales.

"The prospect of making steel with hydrogen for example, is a technically real one. My worry is that it's been probably 250 years since Wales was at the forefront of technological development, we've got a long way to get back to the start.

"I know the government is working hard to make that happen in Wales but we can't put all our eggs in one basket, we have to have alternatives as well."

He says that even though some governments across the world have propped up some of their major industries in the short-term, he wonders if it is a feasible plan for the steel industry in Wales.

Professor Calvin Jones speaking to ITV Wales' Work and Economy Correspondent, Carole Green.

"There's a fundamental problem in that steel production looks increasingly old-fashioned, particularly furnaces that we see in Port Talbot which really haven't changed technically since the late 1940s. It's hard to know how you can make those carbon neutral without very significant restructuring.

"With internationally owned capital, with Tata owning the Port Talbot works, the question is will Tata be looking to Wales to develop their brand new net-zero steel making? Or will they do that closer to home in India or perhaps in China."

One of Professor Jones' biggest concerns is what it would mean for Port Talbot were Tata to pull production in Wales. He says he remembers when the coal mines closed in the Rhondda Valley in the 1980s and the hardship that brought to the whole area. He thinks Port Talbot should look beyond steel.

He said: "If we can't envisage what places like Port Talbot look like after the steelworks have gone, then we will be left picking up some very difficult pieces."

Whatever the future holds for steelmaking in Port Talbot, one thing is clear is that it must be a greener one.

With the clock ticking, those that work and live there will be hoping the plant can innovate and be part of the solution in addressing some of the environmental challenges ahead as well as securing its place in the town for years to come.

See more on this story on Sharp End, Monday November 1 at 10:45pm.

Read more: