The Department of Energy announced the target of its latest policy to spur forward decarbonization: industrial emissions.
Industrial processes, which include steel, cement and chemicals, account for about one-third of global emissions. They’re especially tricky to address because clean alternatives aren’t as mature (if they’re available) and the applications are varied and require bespoke solutions, requiring upfront capital and a shift in operations.
The new fund aims to accelerate development and deployment of technologies. The DOE is allocating $6 billion in incentives available for first-of-a-kind or early-stage commercial scale projects that target the highest emitting industries. Officials project an additional $6 billion in private sector cost share, bringing the total opportunity to $12 billion.
A hot topic: thermal energy emissions
Heat is a central element of industrial processes, used in everything from smelting steel to drying foods and sanitizing cans. Industrial use of thermal energy accounts for 13 percent of total U.S. emissions, according to the IPCC.
While solutions are emerging, the additional federal funds could help catapult existing technologies to market.
"The economics of decarbonized renewable thermal solutions versus business as usual are more and more competitive," said Blaine Collison, executive director of the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC). "But there can still be first-cost friction to address. DOE’s support is going to make that friction go away for a lot of companies on both the user- and supply-sides."
The government funds come as renewable thermal startups are having a moment, according to Collison. They’re getting new influxes of capital, thinking about technologies in new and innovative ways, including industrial heat pumps, thermal energy storage, solar thermal and green hydrogen. They’re also rethinking business models, Collision shared via email, developing financing structures like heat-as-a-service and heat purchase agreements.
"I think we’re right on the verge of a massive deployment upswing, and the DOE funding will certainly help that," said Collison.
Renewable thermal energy startups to watch
At a high level, the following start-ups have a lot of similarities: They capture intermittent renewables to offer constant delivery of thermal energy. They all highlight benefits in reaching 24/7 carbon-free energy, industrial applications, the potential to make clean fuels, and cost savings.
As we’re figuring out what will work in this quickly growing sector, the similarities reflect how smart people are coalescing around the same promising concepts.
The list below focuses heavily on thermal energy storage, which is already getting a boost from the DOE, and thermal storage. These are just a couple technologies that will need to scale to decarbonize heat energy.
The company: A Bay Area-based startup focusing on thermal storage for industrial applications.
The technology: Rondo captures renewable electricity when it is cheap and stores it at very high temperatures in brick materials, which can deliver continuous, high-temperature heat (up to 1500 degrees Celisus). Rondo claims incredible efficiency — 98 percent efficient when capturing and dispatching heat.
The news: The startup recently announced the start of commercial operation of a 2 MWH heat battery at a Calgren Renewable Fuels facility in Pixley, California. The partnership aims to further reduce the carbon intensity of the biofuels produced. The companies say that this is the first electric thermal energy storage system in commercial operations in the United States.
The company: Sunnyvale-based thermal storage startup (similar to Rondo) that leverages thermophotovoltaic cells.
The technology: Antora uses excess solar and wind electricity to heat blocks of carbon "so they glow like a toaster," which can then discharge both electricity and process heat at high temperatures (up to 1500 degrees Celsius) for industrial applications. Its system can output both heat and electricity.
The news: The company built what it called the world’s first dedicated manufacturing line for thermophotovoltaic cells earlier this year, which helps convert the heat energy back into electricity. Antora said it reached an efficiency rate of greater than 40 percent, an "industry benchmark."
The company: California-based Heliogen is a renewable energy technology company unlocking the power of sunlight to replace fossil fuels.
The technology: Heliogen uses proprietary software to align an array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a target on a "sunlight refinery" tower. This delivers high-temperature, carbon-free thermal energy that the company says can "replace fossil fuels in industrial processes including the production of cement, steel and petrochemicals."
The news: At the end of last year, Heliogen announced a partnership with the city of Lancaster to produce green hydrogen, which will support the city’s vision to become a "model for hydrogen production."
The company: Israel-based TIGI offers renewable heat generation and storage for commercial and industrial applications in an integrated system.
The technology: TIGI uses a proprietary "honeycomb collector" solar panel which collects heat at temperature of up to 100 degrees celsius. This heat can be stored or paid with heat pumps to create a thermal energy system, controlled through a cloud service.
The news: TIGI is finalizing a project at a global packaging manufacturer in California where it is deploying a 4,000 square meter collector array and thermal storage through a 10-year, heat-as-a-service agreement.