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Decarbonizing Industrial Heat

By Jakob Jensen — — Posted in heat series

13-14% of global carbon emissions are caused by heat-driven industrial processes up to 400ºC/750ºF. Annually, these emissions increase at more than double the rate of emissions from transport, electricity, and buildings.

A McKinsey & Co. study of methods for decarbonizing industrial processes finds that emissions from industrial processes increase with 2.2% annually, whereas emissions from transportation and buildings increase with less than 1%. A major reason for the difference being that energy optimization of buildings and transport has received much more attention than the industrial sectors. In the report three pathways towards decarbonization of industrial processes are identified:

Energy efficiency, holding the potential to reduce emissions 15-20% but facing challenges with payback times for investments often being too long for the companies to accept.

Zero-carbon electricity, i.e. using electricity from hydro, solar cells, and wind turbines to produce heat. A first challenge here is to produce electricity at cost on par or below that of electricity based on fossil-fired production. This challenge can be met only in a few parts of the world. A second challenge is that the total production of electricity from wind and solar amounts to only 1.5% of the global energy supply today, equal to a tenth of the total electricity production today and an even smaller fraction of the energy need for industrial processes.

Using biomass in addition to fossil fuels. This works fine, but has challenges similar to zero-carbon electricity; Costs are often higher than fossil fuels, and supply suffers from the limited availability of feedstock. Also, from an environmental perspective, many scientists agree that biomass is not really sustainable.

In conclusion, the McKinsey-solutions may not make much of a difference in the next many years. And since the solutions also require $11-21 trillion in investments, leading to increased costs for bulk materials such as cement, steel, and ammonia, they are not likely to happen anytime soon.

Decarbonizing industrial processes can be achieved by other methods. A simple way to produce temperatures sufficiently high to power or co-power most industrial processes is to focus sunlight.

Since ancient Greece, the Olympic torch has been lit using a concave mirror to focus sunlight. Today, this method for generating high-temperature heat is used in concentrated solar power (CSP) where the heat is used for generating steam that runs a turbine generating power (i.e. electricity). Basically the same process for power generation as when the heat is generated by burning fossil fuels. Technically, this works fine, but at a cost even higher than electricity from wind turbines, solar cells, and biomass.

When heat is used for driving power generation, most of the energy in the heat is lost as waste heat. Using this waste heat to run industrial processes that otherwise run on fossil fuels, decreases the total cost of energy, while also reducing carbon emissions. Hence, the cost of energy from CSP could be much lower if the produced energy would be used for combined heat and power generation instead of just power generation.

The once promising, now struggling, CSP industry has for reasons unknown to me, seemingly never explored this opportunity. I may be wrong about this. If so, it will be much appreciated if some of my readers can help explain this.

Magnifying glasses is another efficient method for generating heat which many of us probably have played around with as kids. Lenses known from projection tv screens and overhead projectors are great candidates for this, but also too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. There are loads of examples of this on Youtube.

Now Heliac has developed a method for a very large scale, very fast, and very low-cost production of lenses that work like large magnifying glasses. The lenses focus sunlight close to 200 times thereby generating temperatures sufficient to drive most industrial processes at unsubsidized costs below natural gas in most places of the world. Heliac's solution will be presented in greater detail in another article later this year once solid performance data from the up-and-running first 2MW solar field has been collected.

Addressable industrial processes include all processes in food and beverage, in paper and pulp, textiles, chemicals, and in many, many, many other industries. I have included this overview of some of the processes that run below 200ºC. Going to 350ºC or more makes it possible to address even more industrial processes.

Supplementing industrial process heat with solar generated heat will require investments but as the savings will be significantly bigger than the investments, this will benefit the companies, the consumers, and the climate.

Interested in reading more? Please see the links to my other articles below. Additionally, a 'Like’ from you will also be much appreciated as this should help direct more attention at the many business and climate opportunities the market for heat production offers.

Thank you for reading,

Jakob Jensen

HEAT is a series of non-technical, easy-read 3-minutes articles looking at heat’s role in energy production, its environmental impact, technologies for sustainable large-scale heat production, and some of the business opportunities these solutions generate.


Decarbonization Of Industrial Sectors: The Next Frontier, McKinsey & Co, 2018.

Optimal Use Of Biogas From Waste Streams, European Commission, 2016

Renewables: Global Status Report, REN21 2018

Clean Energy Investments Exceeded $300 Billion..., BloombergNEF, 2019

World Energy Investment, IEA, 2018

Solar Heat in Industrial Processes: Integration of Parabolic Trough Solar Collectors Dairy Plants and Pharmaceutical Plants, Hassan Al-Hasnawi, Semantic Scholar, 2016

Photo credits

Heliac, EON, BlackPixel, SoukMano, Zorba The Greek, StockSnap

About me

I have spent the better part of 20 years investing in cleantech startups. During my career I have probably seen at least 3,000 business proposals, including Heliac's which I was introduced to in 2016 when I headed Climate-KIC Nordic's accelerator program. I found -and still find - Heliac's solution to be by far the best new solution I've ever come around, which is why I joined the company in early 2017.

Disclaimer: I have not double-checked all my sources and I am not an expert in all areas mentioned in the articles. I may therefore have reached conclusions that wiser men and women may know to be inaccurate. If so, I trust they will let me know, so I can become a bit wiser too.

This insight was originally posted in LinkedIn