Technology & Innovation
day one project

An Earthshot for Clean Steel and Aluminum

03.28.22 | 8 min read | Text by Jake Higdon & Rachel Pierson


The scale of mobilization and technological advancement required to avoid the worst effects of climate change has recently led U.S. politicians to invoke the need for a new, 21st century “moonshot.” The Obama Administration launched the SunShot Initiative to dramatically reduce the cost of solar energy and, more recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a series of “Earthshots” to drive down the cost of emerging climate solutions, such as long-duration energy storage.

While DOE’s Earthshots to date have been technology-specific and sector-agnostic, certain heavy industrial processes, such as steel and concrete, are so emissions- intensive and fundamental to modern economies as to demand an Earthshot unto themselves. These products are ubiquitous in modern life, and will be subject to increasing demand as we seek to deploy the clean energy infrastructure necessary to meet climate goals. In other words, there is no reasonable pathway to preserving a livable planet without developing clean steel and concrete production at mass scale. Yet the sociotechnical pathways to green industry – including the mix of technological solutions to replace high-temperature heat and process emissions, approaches to address local air pollutants, and economic development strategies – remain complex and untested. We urgently need to orient our climate innovation programs to the task.

Therefore, this memo proposes that DOE launch a Steel Shot to drive zero-emissions iron, steel, and aluminum production to cost-parity with traditional production within a decade. In other words, zero dollar difference for zero-emissions steel in ten years, or Zero for Zero in Ten.

Challenge and Opportunity

As part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic effort to quadruple federal funding for clean energy innovation, DOE has launched a series of “Earthshots” to dramatically slash the cost of emerging technologies and galvanize entrepreneurs and industry to hone in on ambitious but achievable goals. DOE has announced Earthshots for carbon dioxide removal, long-duration storage, and clean hydrogen. New programs authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, such as hydrogen demonstration hubs, provide tools to help DOE to meet the ambitious cost and performance targets set in the Earthshots. The Earthshot technologies have promising applications for achieving net-zero emissions economy-wide, including in sectors that are challenging to decarbonize through clean electricity alone.

One such sector is heavy industry, a notoriously challenging and emissions-intensive sector that, despite contributing to nearly one-third of U.S. emissions, has received relatively little focus from federal policymakers. Within the industrial sector, production of iron and steel, concrete, and chemicals are the biggest sources of CO2 emissions, producing climate pollution not only from their heavy energy demands, but also from their inherent processes (e.g., clinker production for cement). 

Meanwhile, global demand for cleaner versions of these products – the basic building blocks of modern society – is on the rise. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that CO2 emissions from iron and steel production alone will need to fall from 2.4 Gt to 0.2 Gt over the next three decades to meet a net-zero emissions target economy-wide, even as overall steel consumption increases to meet our needs for clean energy buildout. Accordingly, by 2050, global investment in clean energy and sustainable infrastructure materials will grow to $5 trillion per year. The United States is well-positioned to seize these economic opportunities, particularly in the metals industry, given its long history of metals production, skilled workforce, the initiation of talks to reach a carbon emissions-based steel and aluminum trade agreement, and strong labor and political coalitions in favor of restoring U.S. manufacturing leadership.

“The metals industry is foundational to economic prosperity, energy infrastructure, and national security. It has a presence in all 50 states and directly employs more than a half million people. The metals industry also contributes 10% of national climate emissions.”

Department of Energy request for information on a new Clean Energy Manufacturing Institute, 2021

However, the exact solutions that will be deployed to decarbonize heavy industry remain to be seen. According to the aforementioned IEA Net-Zero Energy (NZE) scenario, steel decarbonization could require a mix of carbon capture, hydrogen-based, and other innovative approaches, as well as material efficiency gains. It is likely that electrification – and in the case of steel, increased global use of electric arc furnaces – will also play a significant role. While technology research funding should be increased, traditional “technology-push” efforts alone are unlikely to spur rapid and widespread adoption of a diverse array of solutions, particularly at low-margin, capital-intensive manufacturing facilities. This points to the potential for creative technology-neutral policies, such as clean procurement programs, which create early markets for low-emissions production practices without prescribing a particular technological pathway.

Therefore, as a complement to its Earthshots that “push” promising clean energy technologies down the cost curve, DOE should also consider adopting technology-neutral Earthshots for the industrial sector, even if some of the same solutions may be found in other Earthshots (e.g., hydrogen). It is important for DOE to be very disciplined in identifying one or two essential sectors, where the opportunity is large and strategic, to avoid creating overly balkanized sectoral strategies. In particular, DOE should start with the launch of a Steel Shot to buy down the cost of zero-emissions iron, steel, and aluminum production to parity with traditional production within a decade, while increasing overall production in the sector. In other words, zero dollar difference for zero-emissions steel in ten years, or Zero for Zero in Ten.

The Steel Shot can bring together applied research and demonstration programs, public-private partnerships, prizes, and government procurement, galvanizing public energy around a target that enables a wide variety of approaches to compete. These efforts will be synergistic with technology-specific Earthshots seeking dramatic cost declines on a similar timeline.

Plan of Action

Develop and launch a metals-focused Earthshot: 

Invest in domestic clean steelmaking capacity:

Create demand for “green steel” through market pull mechanisms:

Frequently Asked Questions
Is a sector-focused Energy Earthshot really necessary?

The lower technology prices targeted by the Hydrogen Earthshot and the Carbon Negative Shot are necessary but not sufficient to guarantee that these technologies are deployed in the highest emissions producing sectors, such as steel, cement, and chemicals. The right combination of approaches to achieve price reduction remains uncertain and can vary by plant, location, process, product, as noted in a recent McKinsey study on decarbonization challenges across the industrial sector. Additionally, there is a high upfront cost to deploying novel solutions, and private financers are reluctant to take a risk on untested technologies. Nonetheless, to avoid creating overly balkanized sectoral strategies, it will be important for DOE to be very disciplined in identifying one or two essential sectors, such as metals, where the opportunity is large and strategic.

Why are metals the best opportunity for a sector-focused Earthshot?

These products are ubiquitous and increasingly crucial for deploying the clean energy infrastructure necessary to reach net-zero. The United States of America has a long history of metals production, a skilled workforce, and strong labor and political coalitions in favor of restoring U.S. manufacturing leadership. Additionally, carbon-intensive steel from China has become a growing concern for U.S. manufacturers and policymakers; China produces 56% of global crude steel, followed by India (6%), Japan (5%), and then the U.S. (4%). The U.S. already maintains a strong competitive advantage in clean steel, and the technologies needed to double-down and fully decarbonize steel are close to commercialization, but still require government support to achieve cost parity.

Will this Earthshot reduce U.S. metals manufacturing competitiveness?

U.S. steel production is already less polluting than many foreign sources, but that typically comes with additional costs. Reducing the “green premium” will help to keep US metal producers competitive, while preparing them for the needs of buyers, who are increasingly seeking out green steel products. End users such as Volkswagen are aiming for zero emissions across their entire value chain by 2050, while Mercedes-Benz and Volvo have already begun sourcing low-emissions steel for new autos. Meanwhile,  the EU is preparing to implement a carbon border adjustment mechanism that could result in higher prices for steel and aluminum-produced products from the United States. The ramifications of the carbon border tax are already being seen in steel agreements, such as the recent US-EU announcement to drop punitive tariffs on each other’s steel and aluminum exports and to begin talks on a carbon-based trade agreement.

What is the right baseline to use for calculating the “green premium” of metals?

Breakthrough Energy estimated that the “green premium” for steel using carbon capture is approximately 16% – 29% higher than “normally” produced steel. Because there are a variety of processes that could be used to reduce emissions, and thus contribute to the “green premium,” there may not be a single number that can be estimated for the current costs. However, wherever possible, we advocate for using real-world data of “green” produced steel to estimate how close DOE is to achieving its benchmark targets in comparison to “traditional” steel.