How to get the EU industry off methane gas for good

Russia has cut off gas deliveries to the EU, and heavy industry is facing the first cuts. But some tech fixes could help stave off disaster.

An employee monitors a blast furnace at the Thyssenkrupp AG metals plant in Duisburg, Germany, on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. Thyssenkrupp dropped the most since March after warning losses would continue this quarter, further eating into cash from a multibillion-euro elevator sale that was meant to aid a turnaround. Photographer: Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A look at the EU's green goals, and how it might achieve them.

Photo: Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg via Getty Images

European Union member nations have been stockpiling methane gas for winter after Russia cut off most deliveries to the bloc. Even before Russian deliveries dried up, the EU had set a goal of reducing gas use by at least 15% by March.

There are a number of ways for countries to hit that goal, such as targeting home heating (we love a heat pump solution, don’t we?) and electricity generation. Heavy industry and manufacturing, though, have received less attention. Yet they could pay major dividends in helping the EU meet its goals to reduce gas use and also get the bloc on track to meet its climate goals.

All eyes are on how the EU will deal with home heating given the ubiquity of (checks notes) homes and the need to heat them during winter. But manufacturing and industry are major gas users, accounting for roughly 30% of all gas demand in the EU. A recent Rhodium Group analysis found that just six sectors are responsible for 87% of that demand. They include refining and cooking and the manufacturing of chemicals; iron and steel; cement and glass; paper; and food and beverages. That means finding solutions to cutting gas use in those sectors could pay outsize dividends.

Methane gas is essentially a source of heat. In essence, there are two avenues for manufacturers to pursue to cut down on its use: using the heat that burned gas generates more efficiently or finding alternative sources of heat.

The efficiency side offers the quickest fixes, and there are a number of technologies already out there to help companies reduce gas demand. A 2019 paper found roughly 30% of energy used for industrial processes is wasted. What’s more, the study found that the metal, chemical, and food industries are among those with the greatest potential for capturing said heat. (The same journal edition also includes a paper on “energy recovery from cheese whey” to make cheddar, which is one of the weirdest climate solutions I have come across.)

Most of that waste heat can be captured and reused using a variety of technologies, such as by redesigning pipes that transport steam, exhaust, and water. These fixes can help provide heat for processes that require higher temperatures, like making steel and cement, as well as ones that use lower-grade heat, such as food manufacturing.

Industrial-grade heat pumps (be still, my heart!) could also shuffle around heat. Moreover, they “can be a commercially viable option today, particularly in the current gas prices context” for processes that don’t require high heat, Rhodium Group European senior research analyst Marie Tamba told Protocol in an email.

Still, she noted, “energy-intensive industries in Europe have been in transition (although slow) for years and have already implemented most of the low-hanging energy efficiency solutions in recent years, be it better insulation, or improved waste heat recovery for re-use in the industrial process or space heating.”

That means there could be relatively modest reductions in gas demand this winter. But with next winter expected to be even harder, the need for solutions will only increase. There’s also the small matter of the climate crisis. The EU has set a goal of cutting its emissions 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by midcentury. The industrial sector is responsible for more than a quarter of the bloc’s carbon emissions, and efficiency alone won’t cut emissions in line with the 2030 target. That’s where alternative fuel and heat sources could come into play, though Danijel Višević, a founding partner at European climate VC firm World Fund, said that “the lack of modern technologies that can generate industrial heat without fossil fuels” is the biggest barrier to cleaning up heavy industry.

The EU has touted green hydrogen as a long-term solution because it can be burned like gas but comes without the carbon pollution. The REPowerEU plan, launched in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calls for the EU to produce 10 million tons and import another 10 million tons of green hydrogen by 2030. That would serve a fraction of the EU’s needs, though. And it would require using renewable energy to create hydrogen that could be deployed for other purposes. Investors are pouring cash into green hydrogen as well, including the Hy24 fund, which just announced it has raised roughly $2 billion to invest in green hydrogen. But Višević said the technology “only works in a world of abundant renewable energy where we can be wasteful with it.”

Other startups are working on ways to generate heat without burning anything and storing it using a variety of techniques. Antora Energy uses renewable energy to heat up slabs of carbon so they “glow like a toaster.” The startup says its technology can disburse heat at temperatures of up to roughly 2,700 degrees, which is hot enough for steel- and cement-making. Rondo does basically the same thing, using bricks, and the European startup Heatrix also has a similar setup.

Heliogen relies on concentrated solar, which aims solar panels so they all reflect energy at what the startup calls a “Sunlight Refinery.” This may sound like a candy shop, but Heliogen says its refinery is capable of generating industrial-grade heat.

Neither green hydrogen nor these alternative sources of emissions-free heat generation are ready to be deployed at scale. But Višević said that the intense focus on reducing gas use given the geopolitical risks is also “a huge opportunity here to accelerate the energy transformation” in ways that don’t damage the climate.


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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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