Thursday, February 17, 2022

Germany: high energy prices strain steel industry

 German steel producers complain about high energy prices and the planned new mechanisms of emission trading that will have a negative impact on competitiveness (WELT):

The steel industry in Germany is struggling with high energy costs. "In the last six months alone, our expenditure on electricity and gas has increased by a three-digit million amount," reports Bernhard Osburg, CEO of Thyssenkrupp Steel Europe.

And his company has the advantage of only having to buy a small amount of energy. "We currently produce two thirds of the electricity ourselves," reports Osburg at the "Handelsblatt annual conference on the future of steel". The cost explosion arises only with the remaining third.

For the industry as a whole, the Steel Industry Association puts the additional costs at around 1.7 billion euros at the current high price level for electricity and gas. "This endangers the international competitiveness of electric steel production, which will also play a decisive role in the climate goals of the federal government," warns Association President Hans Jürgen Kerkhoff. Especially since Germany already has one of the highest electricity prices in an international comparison.

But Kerkhoff does not just worry about the here and now. "The high energy prices are also jeopardizing the start of the planned transformation of the steel industry," says the industry representative. Because that requires a lot of energy.

So far, the industry has been one of the biggest climate sinners in Germany. Almost 60 million tons of CO₂ are emitted every year in steel production, which alone corresponds to a third of industrial emissions in Germany. In order to drastically reduce this number and to become almost climate-neutral in the future, manufacturers are planning new production processes.

“Green steel” is the corresponding catchphrase. This means that production is no longer carried out in the classic blast furnace, but in direct reduction plants. In contrast to the usual blast furnace route, so-called reduction gases, which extract the oxygen from the iron ore, are not produced with coking coal, but in the first step with natural gas and then with hydrogen in the future, produced with electricity from renewable energy. "This enables a CO2 reduction of 95 to 97 percent," says the think tank Agora Energiewende, which specializes in the electricity sector.

All major steel producers in Germany have had corresponding pilot plants for a long time. However, the actual conversion will cost a lot of money, estimates in the industry range from 20 to 30 billion euros. And investing in the systems is not enough.

At the same time, the energy requirement increases many times over. "Because the transformation of the steel industry is based on electrification, electrolytically generated hydrogen and natural gas as a low-CO₂ transitional raw material," explains expert Kerkhoff. Due to the high energy prices, there is now a risk of a drastic increase in costs. Because by 2030 alone, the demand for natural gas will increase by two thirds and the demand for green electricity will even triple.

The example of Thyssenkrupp shows how gigantic the quantities are in the final stage. The German market leader currently needs around 4.5 terawatt hours of energy for its plant at the Duisburg site – incidentally the largest steel plant in Europe. "If we produce in a climate-neutral manner, this need will increase tenfold," announces Steel Division boss Osburg. For comparison: According to the company, the 45 terawatt hours required then correspond to 4.5 times the electricity requirements of the city of Hamburg.

That is a gigantic amount. And unlike today, that would have to be bought in completely. "But we will not be able to do this alone, either as a company or as an industry as a whole," says Osburg. Rather, compensation is needed via the climate protection agreements planned by Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens).

Steel President Kerkhoff is also calling for state aid. "Politicians must not just look on, but should develop solutions in dialogue with industry on how gas and electricity prices can be kept at a competitive level for industry," demands the industry representative. Especially since the energy cost problem is by no means the only source of danger for the industry.

Burdens from European emissions trading. The EU is currently discussing a far-reaching revision of this mechanism. And the proposals currently being discussed provide for the gradual abolition of the free allocation of CO₂ certificates. According to the Steel Industry Association, there is a risk of additional costs of 16 billion euros per year - in addition to the investments in systems and the additional costs for energy.

“But that would take away the economic power and investment leeway that companies need for the transformation,” warns association leader Kerkhoff. The companies themselves complain about that. "It takes our breath away," says Thyssenkrupp manager Osburg. "Merging off free allocations and investing in the future at the same time - that can't work."

Geert van Poelvoorde also finds clear words. "You have to ask yourself whether the steel industry still has a future in Europe," says the European boss of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel manufacturer. “More pressure will not accelerate the transformation. On the contrary: the steel industry is being deprived of the means to switch production to green.”

Especially in connection with the high energy prices. Van Poelvoorde expects the costs for electricity and gas to normalize step by step. However, the price will not drop to previous levels. And even that has an impact. His company has a plant in Hamburg that will initially produce climate-friendly steel with natural gas and later with green hydrogen. “At the moment, however, we cannot operate this plant competitively. With the current electricity prices, it would stand still.”

However, a constant start-stop mode will not work. And what that can ultimately mean is shown by another example from the ArcelorMittal Group. "We just had to close a plant in Poland, also because the electricity costs are too high," reports van Poelvoorde.

The manager sees Europe as a steel location at a crossroads. "2022 will decide how big or small the European steel industry will still be." The EU must decide whether to support the transformation and thus the decarbonization of the steel industry with subsidies or not.

In any case, the previous plans in Brussels were not sufficient to ensure the future viability of the industry. "There are enough goals, what we need now are decisions to be able to implement projects so that green steel can be produced," van Poelvoorde very clearly demands support.

After all, in the case of ArcelorMittal, a complete conversion to direct reduction plants involves investments in the order of five to six billion euros. "In the current environment, however, a decision on these investments is impossible."

This is also emphasized by the steel trade association. "The political framework for investments worth billions must be created now," says Association President Kerkhoff. “These large-scale industrial investments require a reliable financing basis across legislative periods.

This is not about long-term funding, but about appropriate support in the ramp-up phase and protection against the enormous risks.” And that as quickly as possible. "Every month that goes by costs competitiveness," says Thyssenkrupp man Osburg. The long-established company wants to commission the first plant that can also produce climate-neutrally using hydrogen in 2025.

"It's a facility that's 150 meters high and costs a little over a billion euros. They don't even build them in 14 days. If we don't step on the gas now, that won't happen.” For such a decision, however, the supervisory board needs well-founded data and acceptable framework conditions.

Politicians are under pressure. Because steel is one of the most important materials and also plays a key role in the German industrial mix, after all, car and mechanical engineering are among the core sectors in this country. And their business is closely linked to steel. According to a study by Prognos commissioned by the Steel Industry Association, a drop of 40 percent in steel production in Germany means the loss of 200,000 jobs and 114 billion euros in added value.

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