As the world grapples with the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and its renewed emphasis of our need to rapidly decarbonise, talk will inevitably turn to the challenges of taking action and the merits of delaying the inevitable.
Our inability so far as a nation to implement a carbon trading scheme – or any binding long-term mechanism that will incentivise businesses and innovators to cut harmful greenhouse gases – has somewhat sullied our appetite for blue sky thinking when it comes to transforming our economy in the face of global warming.
But what if we collectively shifted the conversation from challenge to opportunity?
What if we picked apart, one by one, each sector of the economy and looked at how it could transform to zero emissions within a decade?
At Beyond Zero Emissions, we do just that.
Our latest report, Electrifying Industry, focuses on the manufacturing sector and the many products – like steel, glass, paper and plastic – which make an endless array of goods that can enrich our lives.
Producing these materials requires a lot of heat. The usual way of generating this heat has not changed fundamentally since the bronze age: we light a fire. And every year in Australia, burning fossil fuels for industrial heat processes produces 42 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – as much as our entire car fleet.
Yet these emissions are neglected. For every hundred articles about electric vehicles you’d be lucky to see one about industrial heat processes.
Our report shows how electrification, powered by renewable energy, could not only eliminate 8 per cent of Australian emissions but revive the entire manufacturing sector.
By adopting a range of heat technologies – both old and new – we can harness what former chief scientist Alan Finkel has called the “almost magical efficiency of electricity when applied to real-world tasks”.
We show that by switching from natural gas to electricity it is possible to halve the energy required to make a diverse range of products such as beer, bricks and cast metal.
Heat pumps are one technology with great potential. They can produce several times more thermal energy than they use in electrical energy, leading to remarkable efficiencies of 300 per cent to 700 per cent.
Industrial heat pumps are available which can produce water or steam up to 160°C, making them a viable alternative to the inefficient centralised gas boiler systems found in most factories.
Electrical induction, the technology used in modern stoves, can be used for melting and heat-treating metal. An induction furnace can melt a tonne of aluminium 50 per cent more efficiently than the best gas-fired furnaces.
Efficient electrified processes can save so much energy their installation cost can often be paid back within two years.
This cost advantage will increase as the price of wind and solar energy continues to fall.
At a time when industry is struggling with high gas costs, the solution could be to abandon gas and go electric.
Electrification can reduce costs in other ways, such as by speeding up production.
Brickmaking time can be reduced by half
Our report shows how using microwaves to help fire bricks can reduce production time by more than half. This means a brick-maker seeking to double production could simply retrofit microwave emitters, instead of building a whole new factory.
We can completely transform the way we make some materials. For example, steel-making causes 6 per cent of global emissions because it relies on coal.
But steel can also be made with hydrogen, and this has been demonstrated at a commercial-scale.
Electrolysis cheap and best in Oz – imagine zero emissions steel
As the International Energy Agency has pointed out, Australia is one of the best and cheapest places to make renewable hydrogen using electrolysis. By combining our excellent resources in renewable energy and our iron ore, Australia could become the world’s leading exporter of zero-emissions steel.
Electrical heating technologies are safer, more precise, easier to control and complement the manufacturing sector’s embrace of greater automation and digitisation – the much heralded fourth industrial revolution.
Of course, this electrification must be powered by renewables to be emissions-free.
Fortunately, manufacturers don’t have to wait for a fully renewable grid, they can switch to renewables right away.
As The Fifth Estate has previously reported, many businesses are already signing power purchase agreements for renewable energy and saving money in the process.
Other companies, like Liberty One-Steel, are simply building their own renewable power stations.
In practical terms our renewable energy potential is limitless. Our 2015 Renewable Energy Superpowerreport showed we can generate more energy from solar PV and wind than all the fossil fuels in Australia.
That’s an unusual situation. Many countries around the world have their work cut out to harness enough renewable energy. Our competitive advantage is Australia’s abundance of sun, wind and available land.
Despite these natural advantages, Australia risks getting left behind.
Overseas is beating us. Again. Despite our advantages
The leading efforts to electrify industry are happening overseas.
Hundreds of heat pumps are installed throughout Japan and Europe, but there are only a handful in Australia. Here no one is talking about hydrogen-based steel, but the Swedish government is already backing it with an A$80 million investment.
We are asking Australian governments to develop bold industrial plans that aim to rapidly eliminate industrial emissions while stimulating a renaissance in Australian manufacturing, fit for a zero-carbon era. The electricity sector cannot be expected to be the only sector to transform.
We must change from thinking that climate change is a just a costly burden.
Yes, it is an inevitability that we all must deal with it – but we should adapt and prosper before it’s too late.
Michael Lord is head of research, Beyond Zero Emissions