How electrification can help with net zero

Electrification is often the most efficient way to decarbonize low-medium temperature industrial processes. Image: Fre Sonneveld/Unsplash

Bjarke Buchbjerg
CTO, Kyoto Group AS
Jozefien Vanbecelaere
Head of EU Affairs, European Heat Pump Association
Natalia Zabolotnikova
Accenture Fellow , World Economic Forum
Xabier Mugarza Zorriqueta
Project Fellow, Clean Power and Electrification, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Industry is responsible for 40% of global energy use and for 25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Electrification is often the most efficient way to decarbonize low-medium temperature industrial processes (below 500°C).
  • Commercially viable and mature technology solutions exist, yet they are not being deployed at the required pace.

The industrial sector is directly responsible for roughly 40% of global energy consumption and contributes to 25% of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. Recognizing these figures highlights the urgency of decarbonizing industry to achieve net zero targets. As the sector is expected to grow – driven by economic development and population growth – the need to transition away from carbon-heavy sources is more apparent.

A significant part of industrial energy demand comes in the form of heat, mainly sourced from fossil fuels.

While electrifying energy-intensive sectors like cement, aluminium and steel remains technically challenging due to high temperatures, mature and commercially available technologies exist for medium-low temperature processes (below 500°C). Nearly half of overall heat demand is created by processes with temperatures below 200°C, which satisfies most heat requirements of sectors like food and beverage, plastics, textiles, wood products, and appliance and machinery manufacturing.

In the industrial landscape, electrification technologies have reached an advanced level of maturity. Heat pumps, for instance, are a consistently efficient and cost-effective solution for providing low-temperature heat in industrial processes.

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Notably, heat pumps do not directly generate heat; instead, they transfer it. This requires less energy input for equivalent heat output. Technological progress has led to the development of highly efficient heat pumps for diverse industrial heating needs. Paired with advanced heat storage solutions, these technologies ensure a seamless and sustainable supply of thermal energy for industries.

Despite these clear benefits, the deployment of such transformative technologies is not happening at the necessary pace. Persistent barriers hinder progress. These include lack of awareness, lack of first movers (particularly among small businesses), concerns about upfront investments, and unstable electricity prices.

The question, however, should shift from “why not?” to “How can we overcome these challenges to unlock the potential of industrial electrification?”


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Seeing as raising awareness is a part of the answer, below is an exploration of two key technologies – heat pumps and heat storage.

Heat pumps

Heat pumps are helping decarbonize industrial processes. This includes pasta-making, pasteurization of milk, chemicals production and furniture manufacturing.

While they are mostly associated with home and office use, heat pumps are increasingly able to provide high levels of heat needed in industry. Large heat pumps today can reach temperatures of over 180°C, which is enough to meet the heating demand of 37% of industry. This matches the needs of sectors where a lot of drying takes place (paper and pulp, wood, fruits and vegetables) or applications like pasteurization, distillation and food production. Essentially, any sector where heating and cooling of products and processes occurs.

What’s more, these heat pumps have high capacities – ranging from 100 kW to 50 MW. These are much more powerful than residential heat pumps, whose capacities are normally around 6 kW to 15 kW.

Electric heat pumps are clean and renewable – taking energy from sources like the air, underground or water. It is especially appropriate and efficient in industrial processes where the use of waste heat (e.g. a refrigeration process) as an energy source is needed. They are also highly efficient – providing three to five times as much heating or cooling as the small amount of driving power they use.

Just like in residential settings, more heat pumps in industry means less use of fossil fuels. GHGs from industrial heating could be cut by 78% if heat pumps were rolled out across industries. By 2050, GHGs could be cut by a whopping 99%.

Heat pumps provide flexibility to the electricity grid because they can be switched on and off depending on the power price.

In realizing the potential of heat pumps, collaboration is key. For instance, the rapid publication of the EU heat pump action plan - postponed by the European Commission from the scheduled launch date of early 2024 - and continued support for research and development (R&D) initiatives will be pivotal in propelling the industrial sector towards a greener and more efficient future.

Heat storage

Thermal Energy Storage (TES) is a pioneering energy storage technology, deferring the final use of thermal or electrical energy to a later stage. It encompasses various technical applications and storage technologies, including heat-to-heat, heat-to-power, power-to-heat, power-to-heat-to-power, and thermal-base-power-to-X. TES technologies are at a high technology readiness level and are ready for widespread deployment. They can uniquely contribute to electrification, renewable power generation, and energy flexibility.

TES plays a key role in the electricity sector by facilitating Renewable Energy Source (RES) integration, mitigating intermittency, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and offering grid-scale flexibility. In heating and cooling, TES aids industrial decarbonization, optimizing electrified solutions and enabling customized thermal energy needs. In combined heat and power applications TES diversifies revenues and repurposes stranded assets, supporting a just transition in fossil fuel-dependent regions.

TES, with proven applications and a clear benefit, is ready for large-scale deployment and can play a crucial role in industrial electrification.

Both heat pumps and TES will be crucial in our ambitions for a net zero future.

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