Solar and green steel: A growing symbiotic relationship

The photovoltaic industry is quite literally built on steel. As a crucial component of racking and trackers for solar PV systems, a reliable steel supply is a necessity for the transition to solar-powered energy. As a material, steel is the most sustainable choice for mounting systems, producing just one-third of the emissions per kilo of aluminum. This article was originally published in Solar Power World.

The steel industry is also working to incorporate sustainability in other ways, such as the use of protective coatings made with plant oils rather than fossil fuel oil. But the sustainability relationship is not one-sided: solar energy is also becoming increasingly important for the steel industry. As pressure grows for steel manufacturing to decarbonize, the two industries can work together to meet climate targets and develop a greener manufacturing environment.

The race to produce carbon-free steel

The United States has an abundant steel supply, increasingly driven by domestic manufacturing. Imports have been trending downwards: in 2023, steel imports dropped 8.7% from the previous year, for a total of just over 2 million tons. An increased concern about climate impact is partially responsible for this new emphasis on domestic production.

Industry representatives have recently advocated for a new tax on carbon-intensive steel imports, which is gaining supporters in Washington. The European Union has already implemented a similar policy with the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). Starting in 2026, steel manufactured using fossil-fuel-intensive production methods will become more expensive to import into the EU, independent of the country of origin. With an upcoming focus on emissions from steel — both in the United States and globally — producers have an incentive to start focusing on decarbonization now.

This is where solar comes in. Secondary emissions from electricity use can already be significantly reduced, with manufacturers around the globe starting to decarbonize this part of their operations using rooftop and on-site solar. In the United States, EVRAZ, a steel company, is commissioning a 300 MW solar farm which will power the world’s largest solar-powered steel plant; Turkish steelmaker Tosyali uses a 140-MW rooftop PV array, one of the world’s largest, to reduce its carbon emissions; and in Europe, Swedish steelmaker SSAB recently announced that its Italian branch now operates with 100% fossil-free energy using a 756-kW rooftop installation from Solnet Group.

New technologies will rely on solar power

Solar energy is also growing in importance for steel’s direct production process. While the high temperatures needed to produce steel could only be provided by fossil fuels in the past, this is slowly starting to change with the development of new technologies such as electric arc furnaces. These furnaces use electricity as their main power source, creating an electric arc that heats the material rather than using fuel to heat air to high temperatures. Electric arc furnaces are also compatible with up to 100% recycled scrap steel, which reduces emissions and environmental impact even further.

Finally, the buildout of solar and other renewable energy sources is necessary to produce green hydrogen, another fossil-free fuel capable of reaching sufficient temperatures for steel production. Steel producers are already beginning to incorporate hydrogen into their operations in cases where electric arc furnaces are not yet suitable. The HYBRIT project, a joint effort from steelmakers SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall, aims to bring green steel to the Swedish market before 2030 using solar and other renewables for hydrogen production.

As the steel industry shifts toward electric furnaces and hydrogen fuel, solar will only become more important as an energy source in the context of steelmaking. To meet climate targets, both the energy used to produce hydrogen and to power electric arc furnaces must come from renewable sources — and solar is already the most cost-competitive.

For steel plants, onsite solar is a worthy investment to power operations in a more climate-friendly manner today and to prepare for tomorrow’s technological developments.

Kaj Kangasmäki_1-1

Kaj Kangasmäki
CEO, Solnet Group

Joanna Viileinen,
Head of Marketing and Communication