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How corporations can jump-start industrial electrification in the US

Substantial unrealized potential exists to electrify industrial processes and reduce these emissions. 

Paper recycling plant

Using electrified drying for the recycled paper industry could avoid 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

From cardboard boxes delivered to our doors to home appliances, nearly everything comes from industrial processes. Those processes use a lot of energy and largely come from fossil fuels; one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from industry. To achieve net-zero economy-wide emissions by 2050 and limit global warming, industrial emissions must drop while still meeting societal needs.

A key route to industrial emissions reductions is electrification (replacing industrial fossil fuels with electric alternatives). Recent analysis using Energy Innovation’s Energy Policy Simulator showed electrification could reduce industrial emissions while growing the economy and creating jobs, and we look forward to exploring viable pathways to industrial electrification at the upcoming VERGE Electrify event.

But we can start now by deploying commercially available electric technologies, scaling transformative industrial process technologies and continuing research, development and demonstration (RD&D) of next-generation solutions.

Start with heat

Most industries require a lot of heat and steam for manufacturing, which today are mainly generated by fossil fuel combustion, which creates about 52 percent of direct industrial greenhouse gas emissions. But substantial unrealized potential exists to electrify industrial processes and reduce these emissions. 

A new report by Global Efficiency Intelligence shows that by increasing electrification across 13 industrial sectors — from food processing to paper products — these sectors could reduce emissions more than 134 million metric tons (Mt) per year in 2050 (emissions from 29 million cars). And as the grid decarbonizes, overall emissions will continue declining over time. For example, its analysis found that using electrified drying for the recycled paper industry could avoid 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050. Here's how these sectors could get a start:

Prioritize low-temperature heat processes. Lower-temperature applications are the best fit for electrification, as two-thirds of industrial heat demand is below 300 degrees Celsius. The food, beverage, tobacco, transport equipment, textile, chemicals and pulp and paper industries are early candidates with high proportions of process heat in this range. Potential technologies for use include heat pumps, electric boilers, microwaves and infrared heaters, notes Beneficial Electrification in Industry.

For example, continuous cooling of plastics during injection molding can be precisely controlled using heat pumps. Clean electricity can provide a viable alternative for remaining industrial processes with higher heat needs by generating hydrogen via electrolysis. Hydrogen also can be used as a fuel or a feedstock.

Optimize electric energy efficiency. Energy efficiency can reduce energy inputs and lower cost differences between electricity and natural gas. Efficiency gains can be achieved by optimizing how material and energy flow, and by replacing inefficient heat usage with precisely targeted electrical heat from induction or lasers. Continued energy efficiency improvements can help improve electrification economics, reduce emissions and improve industry’s bottom line.

So, what is needed to jump-start U.S. industrial electrification?

Evaluate the full range of benefits. Electric technologies can be more efficient with lower capital costs. Industrial users should evaluate the non-energy benefits of electrification including operational advantages, reduced waste, improved productivity and increased worker safety. Electric induction or microwave heating for drying can be more controllable, allow higher throughput and degrade the material less, thereby reducing waste.

Meet industrial customer needs. Industrial electrification technologies such as heat pumps must be integrated with myriad existing systems, and detailed engineering studies may be needed. Reliable field support can help maintain performance and workforce training can ensure longevity and increasing confidence in electric technologies (a market opportunity for business innovation).

Continue to prioritize a reliable and clean electric grid. As industries electrify, utilities and states must rigorously invest in renewable energy and grid modernization to maintain and enhance reliability. Industrial customers also may seek on-site distributed generation or storage for resilience, economic benefits and energy management — policies and regulations should support such investments.

Pursue policies, regulations and RD&D to stimulate the market. Policies and regulatory mechanisms including industrial rate design and RD&D are needed to jumpstart low-carbon technology adoption and reduce electric technology costs, including:

  • Government incentives and funding: Financial incentives should help scale emerging technologies and open the door for electrification technologies. RD&D capabilities at government agencies and national labs should advance electrification technologies in collaboration with industry and utilities.
  • Industrial leadership and partnership: Industry leaders should partner with academia, national labs, think thanks and the private sector to scale electrification technologies and train the future workforce. They should also work with policymakers, utilities and financial institutions to advance policy, regulatory and financial mechanisms.
  • Utility coordination and regulatory mechanisms: Electric utilities and their regulators should evaluate synergies between demand response, electric rates and grid investments to accelerate electrification.

Industry decarbonization is key to reducing emissions and electrification is a clear pathway to this goal. Industry leaders, governments and utilities should work collaboratively to increase competitiveness, deliver health benefits and transition to a net-zero future.

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