Clean Goals: Decarbonising India’s industrial heating

By Prasad Ashok Thakur, CIMO scholar and an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad  and Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; and Labanya Prakash Jena, Head, Centre for Sustainable Finance, Climate Policy Initiative 

In India, the industries sector is second only to the electricity-generation sector when it comes to energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, as per International Energy Agency estimates. The sector also contributed to 41 per cent of the country’s electricity consumption during 2021-22, thus causing indirect carbon emissions. Hence, decarbonising India’s industrial sector is critical for reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 per cent by 2030 and achieving its net zero target for 2070.

Understanding industrial heat

Manufacturing activities form a major share of the energy consumption within the industrial sector. It includes all facilities and hardware involved in the production, processing, and assembly of diverse commodities. As expected, this encompasses a wide array of operations within its ambit. Globally, applying heat is a standard process across industries to transform the properties of materials. These include modification of chemical and physical characteristics of raw materials such as dehydration, facilitating chemical reactions, treating alloys and metals, liquefication of polymers, etc. Such intense industrial heat requirement is responsible for most of the GHG emissions in the manufacturing value chain as it is presently sourced primarily from fossil fuels like coal, petroleum-based fuels, and natural gas.

Technological solutions are available to replace or optimise industrial heat

Adopting low/zero-carbon fuels and electrical heating systems can reduce industrial heating’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. The adoption of AI-enabled smart energy automation tools and digital twin models where relevant can optimise thermal cycles of generation and energy conservation. Developing new chemistries can churn out materials with physical and chemical properties, reducing the need for industrial heating processes. Deploying electromagnetic radiations like microwaves/radio frequencies, mechanical vibrations through contact/non-contact ultrasound, biotechnological approaches, and advanced membranes for ultrafiltration/reverse osmosis reduces industrial heat requirements. The heat recovery and reuse philosophy can drive research in creating circular energy loops within industrial systems. This approach emphasises the development/use of new materials and in-situ energy reserves for calibrated heat injection mechanisms to limit thermal losses. Novel Industry 4.0 approaches like additive manufacturing/3D printing can significantly reduce the number of thermal processing steps.

Decarbonising industrial heat

Realising the growing importance of the manufacturing sector in the country’s trajectory towards a $5 trillion economy, concerted efforts must be made to reduce carbon emissions from energy-intensive processes like industrial heating. A dedicated mission can be conceived to collect and analyse empirical datasets about India’s present industrial heat requirements across sectors. Based on short/mid/long term sectoral forecasts, developing a portfolio of emission reduction solutions for different use cases of industrial heat must be set into motion. Attention must be given to the evolving dynamics of large, micro-small, and medium industries and startups to ensure the widespread percolation of such innovations. Drawing inspiration from the United States Department of Energy’s (US-DOE) ‘Industrial Heat Shot’ initiative (85 per cent GHG reduction by 2035), the mission should set ambitious and time-bound targets based on transparent consultations with relevant stakeholders. India should aim to develop cost-competitive, planet-friendly, and reliable industrial heat decarbonisation solutions for the domestic and global markets. Such initiatives can help improve the competitiveness of India’s manufacturing sector while meeting our nationally determined contribution (NDC) targets.

Roadmap for execution

Commercially available or near-commercialised solutions must be quickly evaluated and adopted by industrial-heat process owners to get near-term relief for addressing the challenges of high energy consumption and resulting GHG emissions. Opportunities for replacing polluting technologies within existing plant infrastructure that require relatively low effort and costs must be seized immediately. Here, reduction of energy losses, waste heat recovery, and smart energy automation solutions are some areas worth exploring. Additionally, government agencies at union/state/local levels working on industry-related matters can take the first step by creating awareness and financially supporting quick-win pilot demonstrations, with a special focus on MSMEs. Online and certified platforms can be launched to model and evaluate competing technology solutions to promote informed decision-making. In line with global mega-trends, financial incentives/deterrents like tax rebates, upskilling-workforce through government-supported MOOC courses, selective imposition of carbon tax, awards and recognitions can be strategically used to hand-hold all stakeholders to embark collectively on the industrial heat decarbonization pathway.

In the medium term, large-scale clean alternative fuels/energy sources (for example, solar/wind/bio energy-based electricity, green hydrogen, geothermal, etc.) for industrial heat applications are expected to offer cost advantages. This may entail significant modifications to in-situ infrastructure and its paraphernalia. Suitable financial incentives and policy frameworks must be introduced to support this transition for hard-to-abate sectors like cement, steel, and refining. In the long term, it is envisaged that transformative changes in processing facilities and the creation of novel raw materials may limit the requirement of thermal heating to selective product value chains.

CSIR can play a critical role

The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) can act as a nodal agency to catalyse such efforts. CSIR has developed cutting-edge capabilities and a pan-India reach through its network of national laboratories/ outreach centers. It can become the trusted platform for incubating strategic public-private-academia partnerships for solving techno-commercial challenges supporting industrial heat decarbonisation efforts. Such R&D and the subsequent scale-up activities can be centered around end user-inspired themes.

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