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Industrial Sector for a Cleaner Future

Imagine a world where industries thrive without compromising the environment, where sustainability is not a luxury but a norm. At the moment, reality is starkly different. The industrial sector is a major contributor to the growing greenhouse gas emissions crisis, responsible for a quarter of the United States' emissions. And its emissions have only been increasing since 2010.  But a promising route is emerging– one that not only addresses the challenges but also offers tangible solutions.
Industrial thermal energy creates many of the products we use in our everyday lives.  Manufacturers apply heat throughout the production process: when washing, drying, steaming, sterilizing, etc.—generating approximately 13% of all total US emissions. And a majority of this thermal energy and heat originates from fossil fuels. 
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Enter the game-changing Renewable Thermal Vision Report, a collaborative effort between Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC). The crux of the Vision Report lies in its actionable solutions to map out the trajectory towards a sustainable industrial sector, mostly driven by renewable energy sources. That’s because this report unearthed a game-changing revelation: nearly 80% of these emissions arise from low and medium heat processes, providing a tangible opportunity for change. 
Low and medium heat processes are less energy intensive and therefore may be more easily electrified with cost-competitive technologies, such as industrial heat pumps and thermal energy storage. This offers a pragmatic and impactful opportunity to curtail greenhouse gas emissions so that industry can act now, even as other solutions, such as green hydrogen, become more commercially available over time. The conversion of low and medium energy has the potential to slash US industrial thermal emissions by nearly 80%, making substantial strides towards industrial decarbonization as a whole. 
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The Vision Report offers potential pathways forward for the US industry by analyzing the six industry sectors that produce the most thermal emissions– Cement, Chemicals, Food, Iron & Steel, Paper, and Refineries. The unique characteristics and challenges of each require tailor-made solutions to reduce thermal emissions and transition to low-carbon fuel sources. 
  • Cement Sector: Cement production is the sixth largest source of thermal emissions in the US industrial sector, and over 80% comes from high heat processes. Typically reliant on coal for kiln fuel, cement producers should displace fossil fuels with increased use of waste biomass, renewable natural gas, and green hydrogen as supplies become available and costs come down.
  • Chemicals Sector:  Diverse in its outputs, the Chemicals sector spans plastics, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals. Production processes like cracking, drying, and distillation represent a balanced mix of high, medium and low temperature heat, requiring several simultaneous paths to decarbonize. These include the electrification of low and some medium temperature applications, the use of green hydrogen and waste biomass, and renewable natural gas for medium and high heat applications.
  • Food & Beverage Sector: Food processing is the fourth largest source of thermal emissions in the US industrial sector. Low-temperature processes such as drying, baking, and pasteurizing dominate this sector and are well-suited for electrification in the immediate and long term. An in-depth report can be found here.
  • Iron & Steel Sector: Iron and steel production is the third largest source of emissions in the US industrial sector. While more than two-thirds of US steel facilities today are electrified, the remaining conventional blast furnaces generate three-quarters of the thermal emissions for the sector. To decarbonize, the sector should deploy green hydrogen in direct reduction iron-electric arc furnaces to accelerate the phase-out of conventional furnaces. 
  • Paper Sector: Production of paper products is the fifth largest source of emissions in the US industrial sector. The sector's low-temperature processes, such as drying and pulping, constitute 75% of the sector’s thermal energy use.  Electrifying these processes and optimizing waste biomass as a low-carbon fuel source offer an effective decarbonization strategy. 
  • Refineries Sector: Oil refining is the largest source of thermal emissions in the US industrial sector. About two-thirds of thermal energy used in refineries originates from refining process byproducts; therefore, although renewable natural gas, biomass, and green hydrogen can potentially displace fossil fuels, their supplies may have a higher impact in other sectors, and carbon capture may be the key decarbonization strategy as global fossil fuel usage (and refinery energy consumption) diminishes between 2030 and 2050.
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Each of these actionable solutions can be seen as one of the five parallel pathways, each a viable route to decarbonization by 2050:
  1. Electrify industry processes: Swap fossil fuels for electricity through innovative technologies such as heat pumps and electric steam boilers, effectively reducing emissions in low and medium temperature operations. 
  2. Green the grid: Transition to a carbon-free electric grid by harnessing renewable power sources and leveraging creative solutions like virtual power purchase agreements.
  3. Deploy renewable fuels: Embrace sustainable alternatives like renewable natural gas and biomass, as well as high-heat industrial processes powered by green hydrogen. 
  4. Deploy renewable technologies: Scale up solar thermal and thermal storage paired with intermittent renewables, amplifying clean technology combinations for emissions reduction. 
  5. Capture and store carbon: Implement carbon capture and storage solutions, including direct air capture, to secure emissions reduction in select sectors as a bridge in transition to clean processes. 

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 These pathways offer a comprehensive array of options, empowering the industrial sector to close the emissions gap. By embracing these strategies, the sector can not only contribute to a more sustainable future but also set an example for others to follow. Through actionable advice, it paints a vivid picture of an industrial sector poised for transformation. By heeding its insights, we embark on a journey toward a greener, more sustainable world—one that holds promise not only for the industrial sector but for society as a whole. The time for action is now; let us chart the course toward a brighter, more sustainable future.  
  • Sarah Chabane

    41 w

    Very interesting, the thermal energy industry is not something we hear about very often, but it has a real impact!

    3
    • Ingmar Rentzhog

      42 w

      We can do it 💪

      13
      Welcome, let's solve the climate crisis together
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