Skip to main content

Rethinking Heat: Electrifying Industry for Climate and Resilience

Industrial heat production is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions, but is often referred to as ‘hard-to-abate’ when it comes to decarbonization. Electrification can be a game changer, with many decarbonized process heating technologies presenting attractive options for businesses to move toward net-zero industrial heat. We collected an overview about these options and share advice on how to embrace electrification as a way forward to secure business continuity in the current energy crisis.

As VP Sustainability Solutions, Fabien Chene is in charge of serving our C&I customers in their Energy Efficiency and Electrification journey to meet their decarbonization goals

Scope 1 – the ‘hard-to-tackle’ decarbonization lever

When you think of “heavy industry”, what visuals come to mind? Even today, most of us would paint a picture of large installations with many towers billowing plumes of smoke into the sky. This is Scope 1 - direct emissions that include greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted on sites owned or controlled by a company. Examples for Scope 1 emissions in industry include stationary combustion of fossil fuels at a facility (such as boiler, combustion turbines, process heaters, and incinerators), leaks of greenhouse gases from cold storage warehouses, and mobile combustion from on-road vehicles or mobile machinery.

Industrial businesses are often termed “hard-to-decarbonize” because of the vast, heterogenous array of processes that produce emissions. However, the potential climate impact of this subset of businesses is vast. Industry consumes more energy than any other sector: 149 million terajoules. Relatively little of that energy—about 20 percent—consists of electricity, while fossil fuel consumption for energy accounts for almost 45 percent. Fossil fuel combustion is mainly used for the generation of heat for processes such as steam production, drying, melting, or cracking. Rethinking industrial heat and developing new, decarbonized process heating technologies represents an important, broadly applicable pathway to eliminating a large portion of sectoral Scope 1 emissions.

REPower EU – a program to become independent from fossil fuel imports

The current energy crisis and the need to rapidly reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels has put all these considerations on fast forward. The EU’s plans to transition to a carbon neutral continent and reduce GHG emissions by 55% are slowly taking shape, meanwhile, Europe is still spending a billion euro everyday importing fossil fuels. It is essential, therefore, that measures adopted to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels (which comprise about a third of energy imports) reinforce and accelerate longer-term efforts to reduce GHG emissions.

The REPowerEU plan, announced by the EU in May 2022, puts forward strong proposals to diversify gas supply, invest in renewable energy, and deliver energy savings. According to our research, the most rapid gains will be made with digital efficiency, both in buildings and in industry. Every additional percentage point of energy savings is equivalent to 2.6 percentage points of Russian gas imports. As major energy consumers, buildings and industry should save 46 and 17 billion cubic meters of gas imports respectively. Efficiency goes hand in hand with electrification and today’s technologies could electrify up to 78% of heat in industry. The remainder can provide niches for application of green hydrogen and biogas.

Rethinking heat – the many dimensions of electrification

If we focus in on electrification to replace or reorganize industrial heat, there are a variety of technologies and processes applicable. The following examples are helpful to understand some of the many different use cases for electrification:

  • Heat pumps instead of reboilers or condensers, mainly used as for mechanical vapor recompression (MVR) in industrial steam cycles.
  • Electric heating instead of steam or fossil-fuel fired heating, including a wide range of applications such as induction melting furnaces, direct induction heating / hardening, electric arc furnace, resistance heating, microwave heating, or electric boilers to name a few.
  • Electric motors instead of steam turbines (which need heat to produce steam) as drivers for compressors e.g., in oil & gas production

Each of these applications have a defined area of usefulness, mainly due to the temperature levels of heat that they can produce. However, the process changes needed for each of these electrification initiatives bring many other side effects, both positive and negative, that need to be considered.

Potential gains:

  • Electrification is a fast route to decarbonization. Once electrified, green electricity purchasing is a well-established avenue to decarbonize processes, whereas zero carbon fuels for non-electrified processes (such as green hydrogen and synthetic fuels) are rarely available today at scale. For example, see how Saint-Gobain created the first net zero plasterboard plant by electrifying its production process, which is then powered by hydropower in Norway.
  • Efficiency. Electric processes usually drive simultaneous efficiency gains. For example, using an industrial heat pump can lead to energy intensity reduction up to 90% compared to a reboiler for steam production.
  • Health and safety. Positive impacts on health, safety, and the wellbeing of the local environment may be derived from the ‘cleaner’ electrical process. Electrification may also prevent costs for flue gas treatment.
  • Process improvements in duration, controls, and materials. A direct (electric) hardening process could be faster than a conventional indirect heating. One ceramic tile manufacturer in Spain saved 75% of final energy use and reduced processing time from four hours to one by switching to induction heating. Electric heating also reduces material losses, especially for direct heating such as induction or microwave.
  • Reduced and avoided costs. Cost implications need to be considered case-by-case, with a total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) analysis. However, the long-term outlook of lower prices for green electricity and extremely volatile, rising prices for fossil fuels can provide for a very attractive business case. Other cost implications might be future regulation on carbon pricing and / or subsidies for electrification projects that are available in many (EU) countries

Potential challenges:

  • Industrial limitations. Electrical heat applications, especially for very high-temperature heating, are only established for certain industries. The maturity level of electrification across all industrial processes is quite low.
  • Extensive process changes. Accommodations needed to transition from a combustion-based system to electrical heat are quite significant, and might require adjustments to process designs, production planning, and optimization and automation – ideally all done in combination. It is also important to be aware of whether operation licenses and other compliance topics will be affected. To avoid duplicated efforts, consider timing an electric process transition project with other major overhauls in production.
  • Increased electricity load. Major electrification projects will lead to substantial additional loads onsite. Consequently, the electrical infrastructure onsite needs to be evaluated to determine if updates are required to maintain compatibility. In the case of very large new load, effects beyond the site’s electrical grid might even need to be considered.

Given the complexity of an electrification project, all these potential pros and cons will need to be assessed on both the process- and site-level. A quick scan on the portfolio level is often a feasible first step to identify the sites most suitable to electrical transformation and synchronize any actions with the existing maintenance and retrofit schedules.

Despite the potential downsides of electrification, the reality of today is that some industries, for example in Germany where dependence on imported oil and gas is high, risk collapse in short-term due to Russian natural gas supply cuts. In such cases, electrification may be the only way forward to ensure business continuity. Industrial businesses should explore options as soon as possible, as available resources in planning, installation, and the respective technologies are already in high demand.

Getting started with industrial electrification

Electrification of industrial processes can offer a range of benefits to businesses and is a major enabler of clean energy independence, aligned with the principles of the EU’s REPower program. Current technologies already allow for wide range of use cases, allowing industry to address a significant share of fossil-fuel heating with electricity. Opportunities to adopt electric technology should only continue to expand as electricity prices fall.

With the gas market already in crisis, any acceleration of the shift away from fossil fuels for industrial processes will help companies to get out of the way from potential interrupted gas supply. To realize the benefits of electrification, companies need to assess their potential, considering not only technical feasibility for their various processes, but also prioritizing sites based on energy market conditions in countries with operations, available subsidies, and various other economic conditions with an informed outlook on future risks and opportunities.

Don’t hesitate to engage external partners to understand your electrification potential, leverage best practices, and avoid the challenges associated with going after such an innovation alone. Schneider Electric has extensive experience in implementing global efficiency and electrification programs and has an established network of partners leading in the field. With our commitment to become net-zero within our operations by 2025, we are actively exploring solutions to decarbonize heat at our own industrial sites. In our work with our consulting customers, we apply this real-world knowledge to help companies avoid common pitfalls and capture the value of electrification across their sites.

To learn more about how Europe can achieve the goal of becoming energy independent, explore our 10-point action plan that would enable Europe to be all-digital and all-electric by 2027.