Standing alongside a steelmaking, electric arc furnace is an intense, physical experience. It’s like being at the heart of a thunderstorm, with a deep hum of electrical charge that you can feel in your rib cage. The flashing sparks erupting from the top of the furnace are from man-made lightning bolts, that rocket around the inside of the furnace, shooting into piles of scrap steel that are melted under the intense heat, before being cast into the girders, rails and machine components that turn the wheels of our entire economy.

A new generation of steelworkers in Redcar will soon have the chance to experience this, following the announcement that Scunthorpe-based British Steel is to split its production in two, with a new electric arc furnace steelmaking plant to be built alongside the Lackenby beam mill and a second at their existing steelworks in Scunthorpe.

The return of steelmaking to Teesside is without doubt fantastic news for the area. Having worked in the industry my whole life, I know how much this announcement means to local people, to see the area back at the beating heart of UK steel production.

It’s also deeply personal to me – in fact, what has been announced is exactly the same plan that I laid out to the management of the then Tata Steel Scunthorpe Works, more than a decade ago.

Here at the Materials Processing Institute, we have a pilot scale electric arc furnace that for the last eight years - ever since the Redcar Blast Furnace closed - has kept the flame of Teesside steelmaking alive. I and my colleagues are pleased that our small furnace will soon have a bigger sibling melting steel, just next door.

The reason for British Steel splitting production between Teesside and Scunthorpe comes down to simple economics. Siting a furnace at Teesside means that the company no longer has to pay for expensive transportation of steel from Scunthorpe to the beam rolling mill at Lackenby and special profiles mill at Skinningrove. Instead, the steel for both of these mills will be manufactured in Teesside and go on to be used in construction, infrastructure and specialist equipment, like the Caterpillar factory adjacent to the Skinningrove mill.

This decision also comes with a big environmental benefit. Steel industry blast furnaces, like those currently in use in Scunthorpe, account for 10% of the UK’s harmful emissions of carbon dioxide. Switching to electric arc furnaces stops these emissions, but it has some other consequences too. The most obvious of these is the significant loss of jobs in Scunthorpe, and potentially at the Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot. That is why I have long been calling for a “just transition” for our workforce in industries such as steel and oil & gas, to support people in moving to jobs in the new green industries, such as offshore wind, electric vehicle batteries, hydrogen and new nuclear power.

However, taken together, the decisions in Scunthorpe and Port Talbot also leave the UK without the ability to make primary steel from iron ore – a situation unknown for an advanced industrial country like our own. Recycling scrap steel is clearly important,

but where the quality of the steel, or the amount of steel we need to make, runs beyond the scrap available, then iron ore is required.

Recommended reading:

Steelmaking is returning to Teesside with hundreds of jobs

British Steel could be bringing steelmaking back to Teesside

British Steel confirms hundreds of steel jobs for Teesside

In other European countries, as well as across North America and Asia, we are seeing the steel industry and government investing together in new ironmaking processes, using natural gas and ultimately hydrogen.

That commitment has been missing up to now, and so whilst the announcement today is a necessary step on the road to decarbonising, it is not sufficient to enable us to make all the steel that we need to power the UK economy and to keep us safe. In 2021, I identified a £6bn investment required to green the whole UK steel industry. An investment of that scale is what is needed to be sure that we will be able to make all of the steel that the UK needs, for our industry, infrastructure and defence.

Today is ultimately a major step forward in securing our steel industry for the future and incredible news that steelmaking will return to Teesside. I remember though that in Britain we only make about the same amount of steel as Belgium and so I want to see this announcement as the beginning of a new wave of investment in British steelmaking, expanding our production, restarting primary steelmaking and ensuring that we create a proper transition for the workforce too.