Energy Explained

Get the latest as our experts share their insights on global energy policy.


Hear in-depth conversations with the world’s top energy and climate leaders from government, business, academia, and civil society.


Find out more about our upcoming and past events.

Reports Innovation & Technology

Low-Carbon Heat Solutions for Heavy Industry: Sources, Options, and Costs Today

This report represents the research and views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Center on Global Energy Policy. The piece may be subject to further revision. Contributions to SIPA for the benefit of CGEP are general use gifts, which gives the Center discretion in how it allocates these funds. More information is available at Our Partners. Rare cases of sponsored projects are clearly indicated. For a full list of financial supporters of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA, please visit our website at Our Partners. See below a list of members that are currently in CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle.

CGEP’s Visionary Annual Circle

(This list is updated periodically)

Occidental Petroleum Corporation

Executive Summary

Recent studies indicate there is an urgent need to dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industrial applications (including cement, steel, petrochemicals, glass and ceramics, and refining). Heavy industry produces roughly 22 percent of global CO₂ emissions. Of these, roughly 40 percent (about 10 percent of total emissions) is the direct consequence of combustion to produce high-quality heat, almost entirely from the combustion of fossil fuels. This is chiefly because these fuels are relatively cheap, are widely available in large volumes, and produce high-temperature heat in great amounts.

Many industrial processes require very large amounts of thermal energy at very high temperatures (more than 300°C and often more than 800°C). For example, conventional steel blast furnaces operate at about 1,100°C, and conventional cement kilns operate at about 1,400°C. In addition, many commercial industrial facilities require continuous operation or operation on demand. The nature of industrial markets creates challenges to the decarbonization of industrial heat. In some cases (e.g., steel, petrochemicals), global commodity markets govern product trade and price. Individual national action on the decarbonization of heavy industry can lead to trade disadvantage, which can be made acute for foundational domestic industries (in some cases, with national security implications). This can also lead to offshoring of production and assets, leading to carbon “leakage” as well as local job and revenue loss (with political consequences). In many cases, lack of options could lead to dramatic price increases for essential products (e.g., cement for concrete, an essential building material). Risk of carbon leakage, price escalation, and trade complexity limits the range of policy applications available to address this decarbonization need.

To explore the topic of industrial heat decarbonization, the authors undertook an initial review of all options to supply high temperature, high flux, and high volume heat for a subset of major industrial applications: cement manufacturing, primary iron and steel production, methanol and ammonia synthesis, and glassmaking. From the initial comprehensive set of potential heat supply options, the authors selected a subset of high relevance and common consideration:

  • Biomass and biofuel combustion
  • Hydrogen combustion (including hydrogen produced from natural gas with 89 percent carbon capture (blue hydrogen) and hydrogen produced from electrolysis of water using renewable power (green hydrogen)
  • Electrical heating (including electrical resistance heating and radiative heating (e.g., microwaves)
  • Nuclear heat production (including conventional and advanced systems)
  • The application of post-combustion carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS) to industrial heat supply and to the entire facility, as a basis for comparison

The authors focus on substitutions and retrofits to existing facilities and on four primary concerns: cost, availability, viability of retrofit/substitution, and life-cycle footprint. In short, the paper finds:

  • All approaches have substantial limitations or challenges to commercial deployment.  Some processes (e.g., steelmaking) will likely have difficulty accepting options for substitution. All options would substantially increase the production cost and wholesale price of industrial products. For many options (e.g., biomass or electrification), the life-cycle carbon footprint or efficiency of heat deposition are highly uncertain and cannot be resolved simply. This complicates crafting sound policy and assessing technical options and viability.
  • Most substitute supply options for low-carbon heat appear more technically challenging and expensive than retrofits for CCUS. Even given the uncertainties around costs and documented complexities in applying CO₂ capture to industrial systems, it may prove simpler and cheaper to capture and store CO₂. CCUS would have the added benefit of capturing emissions from by-product industrial chemistry, which can represent 20–50 percent of facility emissions and would not be captured through heat substitution alone. Critically, CCUS is actionable today, providing additional GHG mitigation to industrial heat and process emissions as other options mature and become economically viable.
  • Hydrogen combustion provided the readiest source of heat of all the options assessed, was the simplest to apply (including retrofit), and was the most tractable life-cycle basis. Today, hydrogen produced from reforming natural gas and decarbonized with CCUS (blue hydrogen) has the best cost profile for most applications and the most mature supply chain, and it would commonly add 10–50 percent to wholesale production costs. It also could provide a pathway to increase substitution with hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water from carbon-free electricity (green hydrogen), which today would increase costs 200–800 percent but would drop as low-carbon power supplies grow and electrolyzer costs drop. Hydrogen-based industrial heat provides an actionable pathway to start industrial decarbonization at once, particularly in the petrochemical, refining, and glass sectors, while over time reducing cost and contribution of fossil sources. However, substitution of hydrogen will prove more difficult or infeasible for steel and cement, which might require more comprehensive redesign and investment.
  • Most of the other options appear to add substantially to final production costs—commonly twice that of blue hydrogen substitution or CCUS—and are more difficult to implement. However, all options show the potential for substantial cost reductions. An innovation agenda remains a central important undertaking and likely would yield near-term benefits in cost reduction, ease of implementation, and a lower life-cycle carbon footprint. Prior lack of focus on industrial heat supplies as a topic leave open many possibilities for improvement, and dedicated research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) programs could make substantial near-term progress. To avoid commercial and technical failure, government innovation programs should work closely with industry leaders at all levels of investigation.
  • New policies specific to heavy industry heat and decarbonization are required to stimulate market adoption. Policies must address concerns about leakage and global commodity trade effects as well as the environmental consequences. These policies could include sets of incentives (e.g., government procurement mandates, tax credits, feed-in tariffs) large enough to overcome the trade and cost concerns. Alternatively, policies like border adjustment tariffs would help protect against leakage or trade impacts. Because all options suffer from multiple challenges or deficiencies, innovation policy (including programs that both create additional options and improve existing options) is essential to deliver rapid progress in industrial heat decarbonization and requires new programs and funding. As a complement to innovation policy and governance, more work is needed to gather and share fundamental technical and economic data around industrial heat sources, efficiency, use, and footprint.

Relevant Studies

See All Work
Close report
Close report
Reports Innovation & Technology

Low-Carbon Heat Solutions for Heavy Industry: Sources, Options, and Costs Today