Photo by Kat Maryschuk on Unsplash

Commercial buildings have stolen the limelight on sustainability, but realistically, there are bigger fish to fry. The industrial sector for one. ARENA is looking to tackle the sector’s giant carbon footprint and fortunately the more innovative manufacturers are getting on board, with a feasibility study program run by the federal agency over the summer attracting a lot of attention according to Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity’s Jonathan Jutsen.

In 2012, Thomas Foods International at Lobethal Abattoir 35 kilometres west of Adelaide replaced its gas-fired boiler with a two stage ammonia heat pump, saving 40 per cent on bills.

The solution wasn’t cheap but it’s an example of how the manufacturing sector needs to lift its game and do its part to save energy.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency says Australian industry is responsible for up to 44 per cent of the nation’s end use energy.

But Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity’s (A2EP) chief executive officer Jonathan Jutsen says the winds of change look like they’re blowing this sector in a more sustainable direction.

In the past, efforts to curb energy use by manufacturers were economically driven, but now Jutsen says emissions profiles are a growing driver.

Entire sectors are looking to lower their carbon footprints, and Australia’s devastating bushfire season is serving as a wake-up call for many.

Manufacturers are also feeling the heat from companies looking to tidy up their supply chains by lowering their carbon footprint.

“Some of the more advanced companies are demanding low carbon… This is going to be a trend and recent incidents will accelerate the interest of businesses,” Jutsen told The Fifth Estate.

Growing commitments to voluntary programs such as the Climate Group’s global EP100 also signal a willingness to change, he says. Launched in 2016 in partnership with the Alliance to Save Energy, businesses sign up to doubling their energy productivity and maximise the economic output from each unit of energy used. In Australia, the Green Building Council of Australia has been instrumental in driving the program.

So what’s being done?

The Australian manufacturing industry’s hefty carbon footprint has attracted the attention of the ARENA. It’s looking to tackle the emissions associated with heat processing first, funding work at A2EP to investigate energy saving opportunities in this space.

A wide temperate range of heat is used by industry, with lower temperatures (around 50 degrees Celsius) used for heating spaces, cleaning and washing. The food textile and chemical industries need temperatures between 100 °C and 250 °C for their core operations, however, with metallurgical processes requiring upwards of 1500°C.

The good news is that there are renewable options for all current industrial uses of heat, with bioenergy, geothermal, renewable electricity, renewable hydrogen and solar thermal all expected to play a role.

The challenge is getting companies to invest in newer technologies that have longer payback periods than they are typically comfortable with (between three and six years, depending on the solution). Jutsen expects incentives will be necessary to get the more risk-adverse companies across the line.

Heat pumps are a good choice for lower temperature applications

South Australian company Thomas Foods International, based at Lobethal 35 kilometres west of Adelaide in 2012 replaced its gas-fired boiler at its abattoir with a two stage ammonia heat pump, which recovers waste heat expelled by the condensers of the freezer plant. It’s capable of heating around 250,000 litres of water a day from 11°C to 75°C.

Heat pumps work best when only a low temperature lift is needed. Used for low temperature heat, they are capable delivering considerably more heat than the electricity consumed. They become completely renewable sources of heat if teamed with rooftop solar or some other renewable source of electricity.

The heat pump is saving the business 40 per cent on energy costs compared with the gas boiler system, although as the first-of-its-kind system in Australia, it wasn’t a cheap exercise – retrofitting a 630 kW high stage ammonia heat pump onto an existing ammonia refrigeration plant is estimated to cost round $900,000, plus GST.

However, the system is saving seven tonnes of CO2 per week, and slashing the facility’s water consumption.

New study could see more food and beverage companies jump on heat pumps

Over the summer ARENA has been running a series of feasibility studies on the sector. One will see businesses that rely on lower heat for processing, such as food and beverage manufacturers, replace their boilers with heat pumps.

Jutsen said the study has attracted a lot of interest, especially from major food and beverage manufacturers.

He adds that there are renewable options for higher temperature operators, such as aluminium smelters, with biofuels likely to play a starring role.

Loading shifting and “Industry 4.0” are also decarbonisation opportunities

Outside of substituting fossil fuel-derived heat with renewable heat sources, digitalisation presents a significant energy efficiency opportunity for manufacturing.

Jutsen’s company is also doing some work looking at how “Industry 4.0” – which includes artificial intelligence and increased digitalisation – can be used to improve energy efficiency in industrial processing.

He says that the costs of implementing new technology are a barrier.

Another energy productivity opportunity for manufacturers in in load flexibility, which could see facilities lining up their operations to use large amounts of the energy during the day while their onsite solar is producing renewable energy.

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