Cutting Carbon Emissions Through Thermal Energy Alternatives

Thermal Power Plant
February 16, 2021

On Groundhog Day (February 2) in the United States, the rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, informed the nation (or at least Punxsutawney, PA) that there will be six more weeks of winter. This means a continued need for heat to keep homes warm.

Industries also require thermal energy — and lots of it — for the production of chemicals, food, steel, cosmetics. Well, just about everything.

“Worldwide, industrial heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand and almost one-fifth of total energy consumption,” according to the Renewable Thermal Collaborative report, Electrifying U.S. Industry: A Technology- and Process-Based Approach to Decarbonization, by Ali Hasanbeigi, Ph.D. of Global Efficiency Intelligence, and David Gardiner and Associates.

But only ten percent of this demand is met using renewable energy.

As a result, industrial decarbonization is named one of the top trends for the coming year, according to the GreenBiz 2021 State of Green Business Report.

In her article, “Industrial Decarbonization Picks Up Steam,” author Sarah Golden writes, “…the stars are aligning for industrial emissions to take center stage, for three key reasons: demand for clean solutions is growing, technologies are maturing and the conditions for policy solutions are ripe.”

Part of the problem with thermal energy alternatives, however, is that different processes require different temperatures. According to Electrifying U.S. Industry, around 30% of the total U.S. industrial heat demand is required at temperatures below 100°C. The other two-thirds of process heat used is for applications below 300°C (572°F).

There is no “one size fits all” solution.

Plus, as with all renewables at the moment, innovations are still in the early stages and so costs are prohibitive. They also require retrofitting production processes, as well as retraining personnel. None of which is cheap.

Keep the Heat with Electrification

To find viable solutions, General Motors, Cargill, Mars and L’Oreal USA, formed the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC) in 2019.

Named by GreenBiz as a top organization to watch, they are taking their position seriously, and most recently, published the above-mentioned report, Electrifying U.S. Industry.

In the Technical Assessment of this report, the authors analyze the current state of industrial electrification needs, the technologies available, and the potential for electrification in thirteen industrial sub-sectors from aluminum casting, steel, and paper to beer, beet sugar, and recycled plastic.

They claim that “the total technical annual energy savings potential (with 100% adoption rate) in the thirteen subsectors studied…corresponds to annual CO2 emissions reduction of over 134 million tonne (Mt) per year in 2050. That is equivalent to taking 29,000,000 passenger cars off the road for a year.”

Any change however, will be a hard sell, as the natural gas industry has the United States, at least, locked up due to its inexpensive use and transportation costs. Golden writes, “…natural gas utilities are overstating its potential to justify infrastructure investments, which runs the risk of slowing electrification of appliances that already have market-ready electric alternatives.”

Other Alternatives

Golden identifies other pathways to reduced carbon emissions such as good old-fashioned efficiency. “According to energy-efficiency expert Amory Lovins,” Golden writes, “whole-system redesign today can yield 30 to 60 percent of energy savings in retrofits and 40 to 90 percent savings in new construction.”

There is also “Green Hydrogen.” While it has been promoted as the replacement for natural gas, the hydrogen molecules are smaller than methane molecules and would easily escape the current natural gas infrastructure. Although a great idea, this may be in the research and development stage for a while.

Another potential natural gas replacement, biomethane, that while intriguing, has a limited supply. It is estimated that capturing methane emissions from dairies, landfills and wastewater treatment facilities would only cover 3% to 7% of the natural gas used today.

Familiar sounding alternatives such as solar thermal, geothermal, nuclear, cogeneration and carbon capture and storage are also being explored.

It may take a mixture of all of the above to keep the temperature high without carbon. But one thing is for sure, that the heat will be on industries to find a solution.

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Laurie Toupin