How the energy transition can be implemented successfully in industry

Germany's manufacturing industry employs seven million people, but it also generates a fifth of the country's greenhouse-gas emissions. In the time up to 2050, the sector is to be made entirely greenhouse-gas-neutral. A research project is pointing up ways to achieve this.

Hedge in the form of a factory© AdobeStock / malp

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Germany has committed itself to doing its part to help keep global warming to 1.5 degrees if possible. The Federal Republic wants to become climate-neutral by 2050, which it has laid out in its Climate Action Programme adopted in autumn 2019. This is an ambitious goal and a powerful call for change, not only for industry. After all, the steps we take towards reaching climate neutrality will fundamentally change the way we live. We will increasingly use electric cars instead of petrol and diesel-based engines. We will be more concerned with thermal insulation for our homes and about climate-neutral heating and the electricity we buy, and how industry in Germany can produce in a more climate-friendly manner in the future. Some of the industrial production processes, which have been established and optimised over decades, will have to be fundamentally changed. Although German industry has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by over a third between 1990 and 2018 without losing its strength on the world market, the industry will need brand new solutions and approaches once again in order to achieve climate neutrality.

Research project investigates energy system transformation in industry

In order to open up new pathways to reaching climate neutrality, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy has launched a research project entitled Energiewende in der Industrie: Potentiale, Kosten und Wechselwirkungen mit dem Energiesektor [Energy system transformation in industry: potential, costs and reciprocal effects in the energy sector, available in German only]. The project, which started in 2018 and runs until the beginning of 2021, is investigating how industry can contribute to establishing a largely greenhouse-neutral economy whilst also safeguarding Germany's position in international competition. The most important conclusion made to date is that achieving a zero-emissions industry by 2050 would be technologically possible. The biggest challenge along the way is to find the right framework for pushing forward a technological transformation that does not create competitive disadvantages. Linked to this, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier said the following: 'Business models will only be successful in the future if they take energy and climate concerns into account.'

Focus on eight particularly energy-intensive industries

The research project on the energy system transformation in industry covers the industrial sector as a whole and is therefore looking at eight particularly energy-intensive industries in particular. These industries, in which a large volume of carbon emissions are generated, are metal production and processing (e.g. steel), the production of non-ferrous metals (e.g. aluminium, copper, zinc), basic chemicals, the glass, cement, lime and ceramics industries as well as the paper and food industries. The research project is additionally focusing on the impact of horizontal technologies, such as those used in the automotive industry. A number of dossiers on the project have now been published showing what greenhouse gas emissions are emitted by each of the different sectors, and how well prepared they are for the transition to climate neutrality.

Technologies that make production greenhouse-gas-neutral

For each of the eight sectors focused on in the project, the aim is to develop new technologies or production processes that preclude the use of fossil fuels and reduce emissions or prevent them from arising in the first place. An initial overview of possible technologies that could help industry become greenhouse gas-neutral is provided in the final report entitled Dekarbonisierungsmaßnahmen in den Fokus-Branchen [Decarbonisation measures in the sectors studied, available in German only], which was also published recently. One of these technologies, for example, is the use of electric melting tanks in the glass industry. The melting tanks used to date have been powered using natural gas. If they are run on carbon-free electricity, however, the volume of emissions produced is significantly reduced. Another example the use of hydrogen in direct reduction processes for steel production. Here, the use of carbon is replaced by that of hydrogen. It is now hydrogen that reacts with the oxygen from iron ore instead. When carbon is used, however, a compound of carbon and oxygen is formed, resulting in the production of harmful carbon dioxide. If the utilised hydrogen is produced in a carbon-neutral way, a huge volume of greenhouse gases is prevented from arising.

In order to make the transition to an almost greenhouse-gas-neutral economy, the volume of emissions produced in the industrial sector must be significantly reduced. The final report of 'work package 1' of the research project has already set out a whole range of possible developments for the industrial sector. Each of these is based on various external studies.

How greenhouse-gas emissions are generated in industry

Greenhouse-gas emissions are generated in industry in one of two ways. The first is the use of typically high levels of energy in production. If this energy is based on fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas), greenhouse-gas emissions are generated. The second way is the use of fossil fuels in production processes. This generates harmful 'process emissions'. In the cement and lime industry, for example, raw materials such as limestone are burned at high temperatures and broken down into individual components in a process known as 'dissociation'. Here, the limestone releases the carbon-dioxide molecules that are bound to it. This means that greenhouse gas emissions are 'automatically' generated during the production process, even if the heat required is generated in a climate-neutral manner. So eliminating process emissions is the altogether bigger challenge since, to achieve this, tried-and-tested production processes will need to be completely overhauled.