This article was adapted from Energy Weekly, a free newsletter about the clean energy transition.
Of the four U.S. energy sectors that need to decarbonize — residential, industrial, commercial and transportation — we generally think of industrial as the hardest nut to crack. That’s because the technologies tend to be less mature and more expensive, and companies are wary of investing in equipment upgrades that could require rethinking processes or retraining workers.
A new report by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Global Efficiency Intelligence encourages a more nuanced view of the energy required for thermal processing in manufacturing, which accounts for one-fifth of global energy demand.
The object of the report’s attention: the lowly boiler.
I know. Boilers don’t sound exciting. As a kid of the 1990s, I can’t help but think of the evil furnace in "Home Alone," tucked away in the bowels of the house.
Industrial boilers aren’t that. They’re appliances that make steam and that can be plugged into an array of applications, such as regulating temperatures and pressures, drying products and stripping impurities from fluids.
While that may seem like a narrow tranche of the electrification challenge, the report, "Electrification of Boilers in U.S. Manufacturing," highlights some truths about the path to decarbonization. Here are three takeaways and what they teach us about electrifying everything.
1. Electrifying everything is a process, and we gotta start somewhere
While we may not have all the answers to electrify everything today, market-ready options now put us on the right path.
Boilers are a great place to start electrifying industrial applications. They’re a mature technology and can be swapped out with combustion boilers, without end-users needing to make substantial changes to their processes or equipment.
Boilers account for 17 percent of energy demand for U.S. manufacturers and, while meaningful, there is much work to be done to electrify other heat processing applications.
But the lack of a complete solution is a piss-poor excuse for not taking action where technologies are available today. For transport, that could mean getting an EV to bop around town (even if there aren’t great options for long-haul trucking). For your home, that could mean swapping to a heat pump, even if you’re not ready to upgrade to an induction cooktop yet.
Those individual decisions add up. And the more customers that signal all-electric is a priority, the more research, development, deployment and incentives there are bound to be.
2. Electrifying appliances may result in a short-term increase in emissions, and that’s OK
The report’s analysis finds that the electrification of industrial boilers in the U.S. could initially lead to an increase in annual emissions. That’s because the grid in many places across the U.S. is still largely powered by carbon-emitting energy sources.
This reality is an argument sometimes leveled against the electrification of everything. After all, if the point is to decarbonize, wouldn’t we be better off investing in low-carbon fuel technologies?
No, we would not, for two reasons. First, we are buying appliances today for the grid of tomorrow. Many states have established targets to achieve net-zero emissions from their electricity generation by 2050 or earlier. And it is a climate imperative that we decarbonize the grid, so let’s plan on it.
When the report factors in grid decarbonization, it finds that the electrification of boilers will lead to deep cuts in emissions by 2050.
Second, we can’t reach our climate targets if we invest in appliances that aren’t all-electric. Analysis from Saul Griffith, author of "Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for our Clean Energy Future," finds we need a 100 percent adoption rate of electrified technologies. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything at once; it means that all choices from here into the future should be all-electric.
This is an important principle to remember. The movement requires every sector to do its part and trust others are doing the same. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts, and industry has to trust energy markets to decarbonize, just as industry needs people to invest in all-electric homes to have a chance at a safe climate future.
3. Scaling electrification requires collaboration between sectors
If averting the ecological and economic collapse from unchecked climate change isn’t reason enough, electrifying everything has fun co-benefits. In the case of electric boilers, that includes lower air pollution and lower permitting hurdles, as well as some technical advantages, such as the ability to ramp up more quickly than combustion boilers.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Chief among the barriers to adoption is cost. While electric boilers are cheaper and more efficient than combustion boilers, about 90 percent of the boilers’ lifetime costs are from electricity. With natural gas being so dang cheap and electricity comparatively more expensive in many markets, the economic argument is tough for manufacturers.
That doesn’t change the moral imperative to act on climate. To make the switch quickly and efficiently, alignment and coordination is needed between sectors. Actions include:
- Policy development — Clear policy signals can help accelerate research, development and deployment of all-electric technologies, and ensure the playing field is precompetitive.
- Grid upgrades — The increase of electricity demand from the grid from electrifying vehicles, buildings and industry will mean new demands on transmission and distribution.
- Incentives and financing — Programs that help companies and homes switch to all-electric appliances can remove upfront costs and ensure everyone has access to the benefits of electrification.
- Research, development and deployment — The further maturation of all-electric technologies will help drive down costs and create more case studies for others to follow suit.
These are just a few of the cross-sectoral support that will be necessary to electrify everything. It will require all hands on deck, with every sector doing what it can when it can.