Climate change has become big news recently — and rightly so. Scientists have delivered important reports about its urgent dangers, political leaders have made pledges to fight it, and youth climate activists have marched in the streets and marked our consciences. This is all for the good. New ideas about electric vehicles, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and adaptation will enrich the conversation about climate action.
But one critical topic has received short shrift: industrial heat.
It’s not surprising. Most people have no experience with heavy industry — such as manufacturing cement, steel, fuels, chemicals and glass — so they don’t know about its effects on the climate. But these processes generate 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with industrial heat alone releasing 10%. Despite the essential role it plays in the modern world, heavy industry has been conspicuously absent from the climate conversation.
If you care about climate, care about this.
Industrial products are essential to construction, infrastructure and manufacturing, but making them requires a lot of heat — heat that emits more carbon dioxide than all the world’s cars and planes. And heavy industry is even further behind the transportation sector in developing alternative technologies. The ones that do exist are extremely expensive.
Many industrial processes start with melting rocks by burning fossil fuels. To make glass, for example, you melt sand and pour it on melted tin. This means hot, hot heat — high-quality and lots of it, ranging from 700 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And that heat is needed all day, every day, to run blast furnaces, boilers and cement kilns.
Ending or even reducing greenhouse gas emissions from industrial heat is a conundrum. Few alternative processes make enough heat while being available on demand. Entrepreneurs and innovators have good ideas about how to eventually replace existing industrial heat emissions sources, but “eventually” is a bad business model in general, especially when the threats of climate change are so urgent.
But the situation isn’t hopeless. Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy took a detailed look at what could be done. My co-authors and I compared most of the available alternatives (nuclear, hydrogen, biofuels and electrification) on the basis of viability, cost and environmental effect. The research is in its early days, but a few findings are robust across sectors.
First, carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is essential to reducing carbon emissions from heavy industry, especially cement and steel production. Our analysis shows it’s more affordable than almost any other option — far cheaper and more readily available than electrical heating or burning biomass.
Carbon capture also supports production of one of the most viable and versatile low-carbon fuels: hydrogen. Most hydrogen, 95% worldwide, is made by reforming natural gas and steam molecules at high temperature (which itself consumes lots of heat). It’s possible to capture 50% to 90% of the carbon dioxide from hydrogen production and keep it from the air and oceans forever. This is already being done commercially at four sites worldwide (soon to be six).
This low-carbon hydrogen, known as “blue” hydrogen, is available at scale and could make 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit heat at many sites today. Doing so would drop emissions overnight. It would also create future opportunities for “green” hydrogen, made from zero-carbon electricity and water. As renewables get cheaper and more reliable, we can begin to swap green hydrogen in for blue hydrogen based on cost, performance and carbon footprint.
One finding dominates our study: More and better options are required. This necessitates a massive innovation agenda around industrial decarbonization, starting with heat.
Thankfully, the subject is getting some attention. At a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on industrial emissions, many members and all six witnesses (including me) called for an innovation agenda that specifically addresses industrial heat. Several bills in the House and Senate would create new authorities for large government R&D programs focused on heavy industry and its needs for high-quality, low-carbon heat.
Certainly, the United States can lead the world on this topic. The country has a strong record on innovation and enormous solar, wind, biomass and natural gas resources that provide low-cost feedstocks and abundant energy. Our tax credits and infrastructure can help put it in pole position internationally, as they did with the SunShot Initiative for solar energy and the Wind Production Tax Credit.
The work done to cut emissions from cars and power plants is inspiring, necessary and not enough. Industrial heat is the next frontier, and the nations that lead this charge will have options and thrive in a carbon-constrained world. Those that don’t, won’t. It’s our call whether the U.S. will lead here as we have before.
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