Electrification of industrial process heating: A cool way to reduce emissions

August 9, 2023 | Neil Kolwey, SWEEP Industrial Program Director & Building Electrification Specialist

July 2023 has broken many global temperature records and is set to be the hottest month on record, making the need for climate action even more obvious. We need to decarbonize all the important sectors of our economy, including the industrial sector, which accounts for about 23% percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions nationally. 

One pathway for reducing GHG emissions is through replacing fuel use with efficient electric technologies, while at the same time decarbonizing the electricity grid through more generation from renewable sources (e.g., wind and solar). Electrification of the transportation and building sectors is well underway through electric vehicles and heat pumps – proven technologies. In the industrial sector, fuel use for process heating accounts for about 70% percent of total energy use; however, electrification technologies are still being developed. While some technologies are commercially available, most  are not yet widely available or cost-effective.

A new report from Global Efficiency Intelligence outlines the potential benefits and challenges of industrial electrification technologies in the southwest states in which the Southwest Energy Efficiency Poject (SWEEP) operates (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). This report focuses on 14 important industrial sectors for which electrification technologies are commercially available. Colorado has the most industrial facilities in these 14 sectors and could reduce its industrial emissions substantially through electrification. However, based on the best available projections of electricity and natural gas prices, most of the electrification technologies would result in increased annual energy costs for the industrial facilities. Unless these energy price scenarios change significantly, this makes electrification much less appealing to industrial companies, despite the reduced emissions and other potential benefits. 

One promising electrification technology which would reduce annual energy costs is industrial heat pumps (IHPs). IHPs can be applied, potentially cost-effectively, to many sectors, including beer and food processing. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently held a workshop on IHPs and, along with industry and Department of Energy (DOE) partners, they are working to improve the supply chain, federal funding, and expertise and awareness of this important technology. 

With support from DOE and partnerships with utilities or state energy offices, SWEEP looks forward to working with industrial facilities in our region to plan new demonstration projects involving IHPs and other electrification technologies. The next few years will be an exciting time for the development and increasing adoption of these vitally important technologies.