The industry sector is highly energy intensive, mainly because many industrial processes are reliant on heat. Direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuel combustion in industry generated 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2019. But by sourcing that energy from electricity, which can be generated from renewable sources, GHG emissions can be substantially mitigated.
To achieve our climate goals, we need to move quickly to electrify industrial energy generation and decarbonize the power supply. Because the electrification of industrial heat does not yield energy efficiency gains, electrification only makes sense when it’s coupled with the decarbonization of the power supply. However, the promotion of electrification at an early stage can reduce the risk of locking in fossil fuel-based heating technologies, even when the power supply is not yet decarbonized.
Technologies to electrify low- and medium-temperature heat are already commercialized
Most electrification in industry has focused on non-heating machinery such as pumps, robotic arms and conveyor belts, but generating low- and medium-temperature heat (up to 1000 degrees C, or 1832 degrees F) electrically is commercially feasible, and the electrification of heat generation holds significant potential for decreased emissions. Existing technologies could electrify almost half of the energy use in the industry sector today.
Some of the main barriers to electrification are economic — namely, the price of fuel and the capital cost of equipment. Switching to electric power makes economic sense when electricity is cheaper than the fuel used in conventional equipment, but this is currently not the case in most places.
This being said, the declining cost of renewable electricity, a price on carbon and/or removal of fossil fuel subsidies, and research and development to improve the energy efficiency of electrical equipment can enable a shift to widespread electrification throughout the industry sector.
Accelerated technical development and commercialization is needed to electrify high-temperature heat
A separate challenge is electrifying high-heat processes (above 1000 degrees C, or 1832 degrees F). Although this is technically possible, it will require increased efforts in technological development, pilots and demonstrations, as well as considerable investment.
Other approaches are possible. Novel electricity-based technologies could reduce the need for high-temperature heat in steel production, and sustainable biomass and other low-carbon fuels could be sources for high-temperature heat. These resources are limited in supply, though, meaning that electrification will remain an important part of decarbonization.