Human power: how steelworkers could make-or-break the renewable energy transition

Switching to renewable energy is an important step to reducing the effects of climate change, especially in heavy industry like steel mills. But while many choose to focus on technological advancements alone, it’s the steelworkers themselves who will ultimately make-or-break this transition away from fossil fuels. A new Purdue University research project combines both technology and sociology – studying how the steelworkers of the future will be affected by electrification.
Transforming heavy industry from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy is not just a technological problem. Purdue University researchers are investigating how steelworkers themselves will play a pivotal role in the transition. (Photo courtesy Unsplash/Ludomi Sawicki)

“Many people are researching renewable energy production,” said Rebecca Ciez, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering, and member faculty of Herrick Labs. “But that’s just the start. How we use that energy in buildings, transportation, and industry is also important to understand.”

Steel is the perfect example. There are thousands of steel mills around the world, and their end products are vital to constructing buildings, vehicles, and almost every other manufactured product. However, these facilities also burn enormous amounts of coal to heat up their furnaces. If these processes could be electrified – especially with renewable energy – it would greatly reduce the amount of carbon ejected into the atmosphere.

While this largely seems like a technological problem, the human factor is also key to the success of such a transition. “Steel mills are operated by people, and it’s those people who have to implement this new technology,” said Ciez. “The jobs that currently exist today have to change. We are studying exactly what those changes mean to our industrial labor force.”

Ciez received a three-year $498,809 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to assess the impacts of electrification and renewable energy use on manufacturing processes and job quality in the United States steel industry. She will be collaborating with co-principal investigator Partha Mukherjee, Professor of Mechanical Engineering; and Jeremy Reynolds, Professor of Sociology. The team will start by interviewing steelworkers in Indiana, developing a framework for understanding how they make decisions about their jobs.

One possible example of the impact of electrification is time. Renewable energy (like wind and solar) is often variable, supplying peaks of energy based on environmental conditions. So rather than abiding by a strict pre-planned work schedule, future steelworkers may work shorter shifts when the winds are calm, and longer shifts on windier days. “Adjusting work schedules to accommodate fluctuations in energy production may have different costs and benefits for the overall economics of a steel mill and the well-being of steelworkers," said Ciez. "The challenge is finding a solution that is acceptable to workers and employers.”

From the engineering side, the team are also exploring a potential hydrogen-based energy infrastructure for steel mills. “Hydrogen is really easy to make, but really hard to store,” said Ciez. “Steel mills already have huge infrastructures in place for fossil fuels. Could we adapt that infrastructure to include green hydrogen generation, and how would that work alongside their current processes?”

Because most of the steel in the U.S. is made in the Great Lakes region, the team have numerous potential research locations nearby. “Steel mills are one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions,” said Ciez, “so we’re excited to have such a potentially big transformational impact so close to home.”

For Ciez, the most interesting aspect is not the energy transition itself, but its impact on people. “Engineers, when they’re designing manufacturing processes, will often assume that skilled workers will always be available – but we’ve seen that isn’t the case,” said Ciez. “We need to be incorporating the needs of the people on the ground, at every step in this process.”


Writer: Jared Pike,, 765-496-0374

Source: Rebecca Ciez,