How the EU can slash industrial gas use
Hello, and welcome to Thursday’s newsletter. Your Protocol Climate team is diving into an underrated way for the EU to reduce methane gas use and if getting carbon removal costs to $100 per ton is actually feasible. So without further ado, to infinity and beyond!
An EU gas saving plan
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 next 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 folks?) and electricity generation. Heavy industry and manufacturing, though, have received less attention — but it could be time to take a closer look.
Industry is a sneaky big methane gas user. 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 the industrial sector is a major behind-the-scenes user.
- Roughly 30% of EU gas demand is tied to industrial uses, according to a recent Rhodium Group analysis.
- Just six sectors are responsible for 87% of that demand. Those sectors include refining and cooking and the manufacturing of chemicals; iron and steel; cement and glass; paper; and food and beverages.
- Implementing widespread solutions to reducing gas use in those sectors could have an outsize impact.
A few tech fixes already exist. The industrial sector stands to make the biggest reductions in near-term gas use through improving efficiency. There are a few avenues for doing that.
- A 2019 paper found roughly a third of energy for used industrial processes is wasted.
- Most of that energy can be captured and reused using a variety of technologies, such as by redesigning pipes that transport steam, exhaust, and water so they more efficiently capture heat.
- What’s more, the study found 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.)
- Industrial-grade heat pumps (be still my heart!) could be “a commercially viable option today, particularly in the current gas prices context,” to reduce gas demand for processes that don’t require high heat, Rhodium Group European senior research analyst Marie Tamba told Protocol.
- In addition to capturing waste heat, using sensors to improve factory efficiency could further cut down on gas use. Breakthrough Energy estimates those types of solutions are about ready to deploy at scale, and the EU could be a proving ground.
Green hydrogen is also on the horizon. The above solutions could help the industrial sector use gas more efficiently. But for my fellow galaxy brain thinkers out there, the real goal is to stop using methane gas almost entirely. And whew, do we have some options. Green hydrogen is high on the list.
- “Where electrification is not possible because of physical constraints, hydrogen could play a significant role in reducing natural gas dependency,” Tamba said.
- Getting costs down and production up is a long-term process. 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.
- 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.
It’s not just green hydrogen, though. A number of startups are working on other avenues to break methane gas’s hold on industry.
- Antora Energy uses renewable energy to heat up slabs of carbon so they “glow like a toaster.” That energy can burn your toast to a crisp, yes. But the startup says its technology can also be used to power industrial processes by disbursing heat at temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees. (That’s hot enough for steel and cement making.)
- Rondo does basically the same thing, using bricks.
- 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 (mmm, sun candy), but Heliogen says its refinery is capable of generating industrial-grade heat.
While this winter in Europe is expected to be a rough one, at least the bloc’s gas reserves are relatively full. Come next winter, that likely won’t be the case. EU leaders are discussing ties between gas and electricity prices in Prague this week, and Tamba said the outcome could “have significant impacts on investment decisions towards electrification in the near term.”
Reducing gas demand will help conserve whatever precious supply remains. Oh, and burning less gas and using carbon-free alternatives would also be a huge plus for the climate and get the EU on track to meet its net-zero-by-2050 goal.
— Brian Kahn
The ‘pure fantasy’ of $100 per ton
Readers of last week’s newsletter (which is, of course, all of you) saw that we explored why $100 per ton is a key cost target for the carbon removal industry. In short, it’s the point at which removing carbon from the ambient air at scale becomes economically viable.
We’ll need to remove billions — possibly many billions — of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to have a decent shot at achieving net zero by midcentury. But while it’s nice that economists, startups, government agencies, and investors want to get the CDR industry costs down to $100 per ton, it’s still a question if costs will fall that far.
Most techniques that reliably pull carbon from thin air currently cost much more than that, owing to capital costs to build facilities and the vast quantities of electricity they require to run. Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer with MIT’s Energy Initiative with 30 years of carbon capture research experience, spoke with Protocol about why he thinks $100 per ton is “pure fantasy.” And what it may mean for the world.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why do you think $100 per ton is an unrealistic target?
Carbon dioxide is so diluted in the air that in order to capture it, almost irrespective of what process you use, you’re going to have to push a lot of air through these machines, and that means a lot of capital costs and a lot of energy spent.
Estimates put the energy requirement at $1,200 a kilowatt-hour per ton of carbon dioxide. The cost of electricity here where I live in Massachusetts is 20 cents a kilowatt-hour. Europe is pushing up prices to 40 cents. And this energy has to be carbon-free. Very few places have carbon-free electricity, but let’s say you can do it for 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, which I think is really stretching it — that’s $120 per ton of carbon dioxide.
That’s before you even start including the capital cost, which is significant. You need larger machines to process all that air. You want to put the air through these machines at a certain rate. And because of that, it’s going to be a large capital cost. Just looking at that, $100 or even $200 per ton just doesn’t pass the smell test.
$100 per ton is just a target to aspire to. What’s wrong with that?
I just like to deal with facts. I think it’s disingenuous. If you’re really interested in solving climate change, you’ve got to level with people.
So what do you think is a more realistic minimum cost for carbon dioxide removal?
Basic physics and engineering say there are some minimum requirements, and when you look at the most optimistic situation, my estimate for where we might be at is $600 to $1,000 for 2030.
If $600 to $1,000 per ton is the likely cost of CDR, what role do you think it will play to get to net zero?
The question is, will there be other, cheaper offsets than that? Every offset has problems. Offsets from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage are cheaper and much more doable. The big issue is the biomass feedstock: how much there is and what the cost will be. Another option, one that I really like, is called liming the ocean. But politically, it’s a nightmare. Think about throwing a chemical in the middle of the ocean. Just think of the protest. But even today, by putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, most of that ends up in the ocean.
It’s very frustrating. When people think things are too easy, they won’t address the hard decisions, even though those hard decisions may end up with a better solution.
Read the full interview here.
— Michelle Ma
A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM
Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.
Make it rain
Gene-editing startup Inari announced a $124 million series E round to fund its sustainable seed design technology.
Boulder-based green iron company Electra raised $85 million from investors, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Amazon, and Lowercarbon Capital.
Here comes lab-grown foie gras. French alternative meat company Gourmey raised a $47 million series A round led by Earlybird Venture Capital.
Another win for plant-based food: Minneapolis-based Wicked Kitchen nabbed $20 million for its frozen plant-based meals from investors including famous vegan Woody Harrelson and Ahimsa VC.
Net Purpose, a sustainability investment platform, raised $11 million in its series A round led by ETF Partners.
Solar panel startup Solestial (previously known as Regher Solar) just raised $10 million in seed funding led by Airbus Ventures to take its space-grade solar panels to orbit.Sustainability intelligence platform Continue AI raised a $5.7 million seed round led by Grove Ventures and Maple Capital.
Greta Thunberg, nuclear bro. OK, not quite, but the Swedish activist told German TV that it’s a “very bad idea to focus on coal” when nuclear power plants are already up and running.
E-bikes, but make them sexy. VanMoof’s e-bikes are sleek and they’re sold directly to buyers. Sounds like a certain electric vehicle company …
Crypto miners, meet Elizabeth Warren. The senator is at the helm of a group of Democratic lawmakers asking the Texas grid operator for details on the potential toll of the state’s crypto miners on the grid.A nuclear equipment giant gets a new owner. The uranium fuel supplier Cameco joined with Brookfield Renewable Partners to acquire the long-time power plant equipment maker Westinghouse Electric for $7.9 billion including debt.
A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM
If we want our nation’s rich history of innovation to continue, experts say, we must create an IP protection ecosystem that helps ensure that tech innovation will thrive.
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