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The initiatives that are shaping the future for industrial decarbonization

Major announcements in September light the road to industrial decarbonization

A handing holding a green cutout of a smoke stack and factory up against a background of a forest.

Image via Shutterstock/ archimede

The stars are aligning to decarbonize our most stubborn sector: industry. 

A slew of recent announcements coming out of Climate Week in New York City and the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) in Pittsburgh illuminate how the U.S. federal government and NGOs are greasing the skids to reduce industrial emissions. 

The announcements reflect the urgency to align on addressing the industrial sector, which comprises about 38 percent of emissions globally. Frighteningly, these emissions are trending in the wrong direction, increasing at a faster rate than other sectors. Left unchecked, an expected building boom in the coming decade could threaten to derail global climate goals and gains from other sectors. 

Unlike most other verticals, we don’t have market-ready technologies to quickly decarbonize industry (which is why these are often called "hard-to-abate" emissions). Here are three announcements that could jump start markets, signal demand to innovators and give off-takers a path to cleaner materials. 

The White House announces new 'buy clean' actions for construction materials

Earlier this month, the White House issued its long-awaited guidelines for its Federal Buy Clean Initiative with the aim of spurring the development of low-carbon construction materials. 

What the initiative does: The program outlines buying principles for materials the federal government procures directly or in projects funded by federal dollars. Among the guidelines:

  • Purchase steel, concrete, asphalt and flat glass that have lower levels of emissions. These four construction materials are among the most carbon-intensive, and account for almost half of U.S. manufacturing emissions. 
  • Increase data transparency through supplier reporting to help manufacturers track and reduce emissions. The expansion of this data, part of environmental product declarations, will allow all buyers of materials to factor emissions into calculations. 
  • Support pilot programs to innovate and scale cleaner materials. Some of these pilots are already running, and the White House says more are to come. 

Why it matters: The U.S. government can move markets. It is the largest direct purchaser in the world and a major infrastructure funder. Federal procurements are sure to grow following a slew of new legislation — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act — that will usher in a manufacturing boom in America. 

The new guidelines aim to leverage the government’s purchasing power to jump start clean materials — before we bake emissions into the next era of infrastructure. The goal is to mature markets for clean materials are cost competitive for all off-takers.

The U.S. Department if Energy takes aim at industrial heating

Last week, the DOE challenged the research and development community to reduce  cost, energy use and emissions associated with heavy industry heating, which includes things such as smelting iron or firing cement in a kiln. 

What the initiative does: Dubbed the "Industrial Heat Shot," the initiative seeks to develop cost-competitive solutions that will slash 85 percent of carbon emissions from industrial heating by 2035. It does this through driving program development across the DOE’s science and applied energy offices in what it calls an "all R&D community" approach. 

The Industrial Heat Shot takes aim at three pathways

  • Electrify heating operations and use clean energy with efficient technologies, such as resistive heating, heat pumps and microwave systems.
  • Integrate low-emissions heat sources, such as geothermal energy, concentrated solar power or nuclear energy, and increase thermal storage.  
  • Innovate low- or no-heat process technologies to reduce heat demand such as bio-based manufacturing, electrolysis, ultraviolet curing and advanced separations.   

Why it matters: Reducing industrial heat is critical for reducing emissions. In 2020, the industrial sector accounted for 33 percent of the nation’s primary energy use and 30 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, according to the DOE. These are tough to address, in part because of the diversity of industrial processes and operations meaning there won’t be one, silver-bullet solution. 

The initiative comes at a time when much is happening in the renewable thermal space. Companies such as Rondo, Brenmiller and Polar Night Energy are exploring novel thermal storage solutions, and technological innovations in geothermal and nuclear fusion have clean energy nerds atwitter. This comes as partnerships, such as the Renewable Thermal Collaborative, work to align the industry to scale technologies.

Green steel raises its standards

ResponsibleSteel released an update to its steel standard during Climate Week, creating a global verified certification for low-emission steel production. 

What the standard does: The standard outlines 13 principles that promote responsible sourcing, reduces emissions and considers human impacts across steel value chains (both the manufacturers and the raw materials). Steel sites that follow these principles and get a certification that they can boast to potential buyers. 

Why it matters: Steel is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for 7 percent of total emissions. In order to grow the market for green steel, third-party validation is essential. How else could an off-taker know that the materials they’re using truly have fewer embodied emissions? 

Of all the hard-to-abate industrial processes, steel may be the furthest on the path to decarbonization. The technologies broadly exist; all that is needed is for the market to scale and off-takers to prioritize clean materials. These principles could serve as a model for other materials that look to decarbonize to provide better transparency. 

These three initiatives represent a lot of intent and little action. But taken together, it shows how organizations are coalescing around policy and market signals to spur forward cleaner industrial materials. They illuminate a path for innovators and off-takers to scale new markets — hopefully on a timeframe to curb the worst impacts of climate change. 

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