Friday, 1 June 2018

Greening Industry

The UK government's new Industrial Strategy is fine as far as it goes, but it lacks detail: its mainly about abstract higher level policy, within the framework set by its new Clean Growth Strategy. It says ‘We are investing £162m in innovation for low carbon industry, and developing a new strategy for the bio-economy. We will work with industry to stimulate further market investment in clean and efficient technologies and process, including through all manufacturing Sector Deals, and through developing a new scheme to support investmentin industrial energy efficiency’.

What we now need is to out some industrial flesh on this broad outline- and not just in terms of products like wind turbines and electric vehicles, but also manufacturing processes. Renewable sources can be used to power product manufacture, but there are also some options, perhaps surprisingly, in the primary material sector e.g. steel production. Though that’s very energy intensive, so maybe it isn’t so surprising, if they can cut cost by greening up. For example, the GFG Alliance has a ‘Greensteel strategy’ which aims to cut the amount of raw steel imported to the UK by dramatically increasing the amount of scrap steel which is recycled and use renewables for its processing. It aims to use electric arc furnaces part-powered by renewable energy to melt scrap steel so it can be reused, a process which is more environmentally friendly than primary steel-making in a blast furnace powered by coal. ‘Greensteel, made using renewable energy, has only one tenth of the carbon footprint of blast furnace production’:

There are many more similarly welcome plans. A forge in Sheffield aims to use biogas, supplied from an anaerobic digester fed with food and other waste from a nearby waste recycling centre: And up to 54 wind turbines are to be installed at the UK’s last aluminium smelter in Scotland. The Lochaber Smelter near Fort William is to get power from a wind farm at nearby Glenshero, which may also supply Liberty’s Dalzell steel mill in Motherwell. That could make some of the steel for the turbines:

Less dramatically, there are big savings possible from a range of process efficiency upgrades, although a recent study of 30 UK companies found that, in their investment appraisals of energy efficiency measures, they tended to be risk averse: they focused on short-term economic benefits and incremental changes that wouldn’t interfere with production.

You can see why companies setting up new plants on green field sites have the advantage- they can adopt the latest manufacturing technology wholesale, rather than adapt the existing plant incrementally. That’s one reason why China has done quite well in recent years. But the old has to give way to the new everywhere. Though, in many sectors, that can be relatively easily done by just investing in green power supply, as in the primary materials production examples above. Although the level of innovation can get quite radical: an Australian steel works is to have 1GW of renewable power supply, including 680MW of PV, with 100MW of batteries, 100MW of demand response and 120MW of pumped hydro storage:

In the UK, some while back, Ford installed Ecotricity-supplied wind turbines at the its engine plant in Dagenham in East London. Avon Docks in Bristol did the same. And PV roof arrays are widely deployed on many industrial warehouses and parts centres around the world- they have the roof space. And retail companies are following suit: greening their energy use.
A parallel set of development options exist in the chemical sector. As renewable electricity gets cheaper, it will be possible to use it to produce ‘green’ hydrogen, by the electrolysis of water, then perhaps converting that, along with biomass and/or captured carbon dioxide, into a range of syn-fuels like methanol and other useful products. A whole new bio-chemical industry could emerge, with ‘carbon capture and utilization’ being one new buzz phrase . There are also interesting ideas for using cheap surplus wind-derived electricity to make ammonia (NH3) via the Birkeland-Eyde process, using green hydrogen and air-captured nitrogen as feed stocks. Unlike the more familiar Haber-Bosch process used widely for fertiliser production, this would not produce carbon dioxide. Neither does burning ammonia, when it is used as a fuel:

So, in addition to offering ways to avoid fossil fuel use in industrial product manufacturing,  there are a range of new options for using renewables to make basic materials- the chemicals and metals that underpin much of the rest of industry- and life.

Some greens will say wait a minute- even if we can produce it with less impact, do we really want a lot more of all this stuff? Well wind turbines need steel. So do tidal projects. And railways. You can overdo selling this idea, but we can’t avoid the need for some metals:
And probably also for green fuels and almost certainly for chemicals, for a wide range of uses. What we actually do with all this then is another matter. We can make it into war planes and bombs, or lots of frivolous junk we don’t need.  Or we can make it into socially useful and needed things. Including green energy systems.

That does mean there still has to be some primary extractive industry- to supply the feedstock, e.g. metal ores and minerals. And that will need careful attention. We will need to recycle key rare materials. We may also have to find substitutes for stuff that really is hard to extract without causing eco-damage e.g. using carbon fiber composites and graphene from bio-sources.  But what we won’t need anymore is coal mines, oil wells, or shale gas fracking sites- arguably the worst eco-damagers. Instead, we can use renewables, which, in time, can supply all we need in terms of energy, with energy return on energy invested ratios improving all the time. So the demand for energy to make these new and better energy convertors should reduce.   

Even so, there will still be environmental constraints to our industrial activities- despite recycling and substitution, some key materials may be scarce, and there will be land use conflicts, fresh water scarcity issues and so on. There are limits to growth. So we still need to think about sustainable consumption - not something mentioned in the UK governments strategy- which is all about endless growth. That can’t be done on a finite planet!  

A proper green industrial strategy would of course work backwards from what resources we  have, and how much we can safely use them, relating that to what we need and how then we might go about meeting needs. A way to go on that..with all sorts of difficulties. Not least that we don’t all want the same things…. But we do all want a planet that we can still live on!
Greening industry is part of that… Though there is plenty of room for debate over options and outputs, ends and means:

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