The Biden administration tries to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions and it won’t be easy

With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last month, the federal government has taken the first important steps towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars, homes and power plants by incentivising the purchase of electric vehicles, solar panels. , electric heat pumps and other existing technologies.

But after transportation and electricity generation, the next major source of carbon dioxide emissions is the production and refining of industrial products such as iron and packaged foods. These processes all rely on the burning of fossil fuels to facilitate chemical reactions, thereby emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases.

Collectively, industry accounts for 24 percent of annual U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, compared to 25 percent for electricity and 27 percent for transportation, and reducing those emissions will be particularly difficult. Eliminating fossil fuels from industry is a more complicated task than switching to electric cars or replacing coal-fired power plants with wind farms, as it requires changing the way everything from plastic to concrete is produced.

Last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) published a four-part “roadmap” outlining possible pathways for decarbonising the industrial economy.

“The American industrial sector is critical to our economy and our daily lives, but it currently accounts for a huge part of greenhouse gas emissions and is particularly difficult to decarbonise,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

Joe Biden with Democratic leaders

On August 16, President Biden signs the inflation reduction law as congressional leaders watch. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The roadmap seeks to find ways for the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, but does not provide any enforcement mechanism to induce companies to adopt any of its suggestions. Many of the technologies it recommends are prohibitively expensive, so unless Congress approves large subsidies in the future, many of the ideas in the report may remain just ideas.

“The scale of transformation that we demand of the industry is enormous,” Ed Rightor, director of industry program at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and co-author of the report, told Yahoo News. Rightor noted that installing some of the technologies recommended in the report would cost manufacturers billions of dollars.

These are the four main categories of industrial decarbonization proposed by the DOE and how each of them could work.

Increase efficiency and use new technologies

There are ways to reduce the amount of energy needed to make products. For example, steelmakers can reuse steel from a demolished building, the DOE says.

There are also new technologies. “We have new tools in the toolbox: we have intelligent manufacturing, we have artificial intelligence, we have systems efficiency,” Rightor said.

“Smart manufacturing” refers to the use of computer modeling and automation to improve manufacturing efficiency.

“Let’s say a chemical manufacturer has a large manufacturing site and has thousands of heat sources,” said Rightor, who co-chaired the team that developed the DOE report. “If they were to try to optimize them all at the same time, it would be a crazy conundrum. But artificial intelligence and machine learning can help with optimization, to help the manufacturer say “where is the best place to put those industrial heat pumps that will have the highest efficiency, to use that heat in the most efficient way. effective, which is the most convenient? ‘ To have the least amount of piping, to move to the smallest distance – that kind of high-level processing is something people have never done before and are starting to use it.

A steel mill in Cleveland

A steel mill in Cleveland. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images)


Not all industrial processes require extremely high temperatures. Cooking food, for example, can be done at temperatures that are easily reached by electricity. “If you look at the whole industry, you can think about the fact that about a third of the process heat is less than 250-300 degrees Celsius, and there is about a third that makes it go up to about 500 degrees Celsius or so, and then there’s about a third or that’s a really high-temperature heat, above 600 degrees Celsius, “Rightor said. “So the lowest temperature, stuff that’s below 300 degrees C, and typically below 200 degrees C, is easily electrified. So you can use heat pumps, for example, in industrial environments, or you can use microwaves, or infrared or induction heating. There are a number of technologies that can be used in that low to moderate temperature range. ”

The IRA contains $ 5.8 billion in tax credits for investment in demonstration projects for the industrial adoption of new, cleaner technologies that can be used to show the private sector how the switch to electricity is feasible for much of the industry.


The sawdust, shown here from a mill near Deer Lodge, Mont., Can be made into wood pellets used for heating. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Switching to low-carbon fuels

For processes that require between 300 ° C and 500 ° C of heat, electrification may not be possible, but that does not necessarily mean that factories have to burn gas or coal. The DOE report, on the other hand, supports the use of low-carbon fuels. For example, a lot of wood that remains, often in the form of sawdust, when trees are cut for paper or lumber could be harvested and turned into pellets that could be burned. This, in theory, would create no more emissions than letting the sawdust decompose in a landfill. (Some conservationists, however, point out that once a market demand for wood pellets is created, loggers could begin cutting down virgin forests to create them, as happened in the southern United States in response to increased wood burning in Europe to produce energy.)

Another possibility is to burn “green hydrogen”. Hydrogen is created by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis, but electrolysis requires a lot of electricity. So hydrogen is only “green”, which means low carbon, if the electricity used to produce it comes from a clean source such as wind or solar energy.

Green hydrogen is not yet a widely available technology. As the Greentech Media website explained in 2020, “The challenge right now is that large electrolysers are in short supply and abundant supplies of renewable electricity still come at a significant price. Compared to more established manufacturing processes, electrolysis is very expensive, so the market for electrolysers was small. ”

Industry leaders say green hydrogen has potential, but note they still don’t have access to it. “Possible approaches for a low carbon steel industry include alternative iron and steel production, industrial electrification, hydrogen injection in blast furnaces, use of clean energy sources, increased use of ferrous scrap and the integration of hydrogen into existing processes, “Philip Bell, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, told Yahoo News in an email. “Some of these options, such as hydrogen, will require both technological development and a solid infrastructure and distribution before they can be used by the large-scale steel industry.”

A carbon dioxide warning

A carbon dioxide warning is displayed near the equipment installed as part of the Petra Nova Carbon Capture project. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Carbon capture and storage

For higher temperature processes, the only way to eliminate emissions can be by capturing carbon dioxide and reusing it or storing it underground. Carbon capture and storage, also known as CCS, typically uses a liquid to chemically remove carbon dioxide before it is released. The CO2 is compressed and transported to a storage site where it is pumped several thousand feet underground through wells in crevices such as already mined oil and gas fields.

As with green hydrogen, the problem is that the technology and infrastructure for carbon capture and storage is still not easily accessible and affordable in many cases. (For example, not all factories are located near an empty oil field and are connected to it via an oil pipeline.) The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Biden last summer, included $ 2 billion for projects. carbon capture demonstrations and $ 2.5 billion in grants to develop large-scale commercial carbon capture projects and CO2 transport infrastructure.

The DOE report also supports increased research on alternatives for high heat industrial processes.

Of course, the problem with carbon sequestration, electrification, and the shift to low-carbon fuels is that the industry will not make any of these changes unless they are cost effective. Making them cheaper through subsidies, or making the alternatives illegal or more expensive through regulations, would be the job of Congress and the Biden administration.

In its Carbon Neutrality Roadmap published last October, the Portland Cement Association, a national nonprofit organization serving cement producers, called for not only research and development for CCS, but federal policy changes as well. which would help the industry pay for its adoption. “More diversified tax code options, including greater recovery of capital costs, greater deductibility of financing costs and access to tax-free bonds,” the group wrote.

“There will be a continuing need for resources,” Sean O’Neill, senior vice president of government affairs at the Portland Cement Association, told Yahoo News.

“This is a great puzzle to solve that will require many different tools,” O’Neill said. “Once carbon capture technology becomes scalable for the industrial sector, it will be something that will be expensive. And of course it takes investments from companies, it takes incentives, in this case, from the federal government, to help offset some of those costs ”.

But at least one chamber of Congress is likely to be taken over by Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections, making it unlikely that Congress will grab more money to tackle climate change later on. Meanwhile, some environmental and energy policy experts say the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency should set emission standards for low-temperature industrial boilers to force them to switch to electricity, a move that is sure to trigger a backlash from part of the producers. It remains to be seen whether this will happen and whether the industry will decarbonise without being forced to do so.

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