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The new mindset for industrial decarbonization

Heated steel being removed from a furnace
Heated steel pigs being removed from a furnace. Photo by Shutterstock/Kaband

Emissions from the industrial sector comprise one-third of all global emissions. Yet they get far less air time than other sources of emissions — in part because we haven’t had great solutions to addressing them, and companies and entrepreneurs prefer to talk about things they can do something about. 

But that seems to be changing. 

More evidence emerged in the last week — in the form of research and a new industry partnership — that underscores what we can do now to start chipping away at hard-to-abate sectors. Among them, my chapter in the 14th annual GreenBiz State of Green Business report, which identifies industrial decarbonization as a trend to watch this year. 

The high-level takeaways: We may not have all the answers, but there’s a lot we can do now. And it is advantageous to start now. 

We have options to electrify many industrial processes today

The conventional wisdom about industrial emissions is that electric alternatives don’t exist — and where they do exist, they’re so expensive only luxury goods can justify the extra cost. 

A new report from Global Efficiency Intelligence and Renewable Thermal Collaborative, "Electrifying U.S. Industry," picks apart that assumption and encourages us to become more nuanced. 

While we don’t have great electrification alternatives for high-heat applications — needed for producing or processing chemicals, minerals and metals, for example — two-thirds of the process heat used in U.S. industry is for applications below 300 degrees Celsius. Many applications — such as manufacturing container glass and running industrial conventional boilers — could be electrified with existing technologies. 

The paper breaks down the energy, emissions and cost implications of electrification for producing aluminum casting, paper from virgin pulp, recycled paper, recycled plastic, container glass, ammonia, methanol, steel, beer, beet sugar, milk powder, wet corn milling and crude soybean oil. In every sector, it found electrification would result in a savings of energy and carbon. 

Electrifying US Industry changes in emissions by sector

The study points out that in many parts of the U.S., that electrification wouldn’t reduce emissions today. However, given the life cycle of appliances and the rate at which the grid is decarbonizing, those that switch to electric options now will be reducing emissions by 2030, with the benefits growing through 2050, according to the research. 

For instance, consider the emissions forecasts for paper recycling in the U.S., which shows deepening emission reductions through mid-century. 

Electrifying US Industry changes in paper

What are the barriers to electrifying industry?

Despite the existing commercially available technologies to electrify industry today, the report found an educational gap among industrial energy experts. More than half of respondents to an industry survey within "Electrifying U.S. Industry" identified technological gaps as an important barrier. 

Electrification barrier

Other barriers identified in the report include cost, financing, policy and electric utility connections. While innovation in technology, policy and finance certainly will be needed to realize an electrified future, the report pushes back on the sentiment that the private sector lacks what it needs to begin making moves today.

New partnerships to decarbonize heavy industry 

Last week, a new alliance launched, Mission Possible Partnership (MPP), which aims to align efforts across sectors and geography to accelerate efforts to decarbonize industry. 

Led by four international NGO heavyweights — Energy Transitions Commission, Rocky Mountain Institute, the We Mean Business coalition and the World Economic Forum — the partnership aims to bring together progressive industry leaders and suppliers, customers and financers to secure "mutually reinforcing commitments" and build the market needed to decarbonize industry. 

While not the first collaboration to address industrial decarbonization (others include the Renewable Thermal Collaborative for buyers and Energy Innovation’s Industry Sector Decarbonization program), the new partnership stands out for two key reasons. 

First, it leverages two other clean economy trends — climate-aligned finance and net-zero goals — to spur forward action in hard-to-abate sectors. Recognizing finance as a primary barrier to innovations to decarbonize industry, the partnership is engaging capital providers to help fill the gap. And, with a growing number of banks, localities and companies striving to reach net-zero goals, it is clear demand will be there once new technologies exist. 

Second, it’s working with stakeholders throughout the supply chain, recognizing that coordination is necessary to make systemic progress. After all, if one supplier prioritizes clean practices, it may lose its competitive edge, unless guardrails exist. 

With a new presidential administration identifying industry as a focus for decarbonization and the race to net-zero, the focus on these emissions isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  

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