Energy-intensive industries work toward smaller carbon footprint

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Image: Patrick Hendry, Unsplash

By Brandon Chew
Capital News Service

Industries such as steel, cement, chemical and automotive are working to become more energy-efficient by implementing the use of renewable resources, experts say.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is cooperating with energy-intensive industries to help them become as energy-efficient as possible and reduce carbon emissions, said James Clift, the department’s deputy director.

The department is responsible for coordinating Michigan’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Carbon neutrality refers to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions.

That cooperation includes construction of electric automotive manufacturing plants.

Those industries don’t get enough attention from environmental groups when it comes to increasing sustainability, Clift said.

“A lot of the climate discussion you get comes from the West Coast and the East Coast where power and transportation seems to dominate the discussion,” Clift said. “But, you think about the industrial heartland of the middle of the country that is a much trickier area of reduction.”

Automakers in Michigan are focused on incorporating renewable energy into their operations, said Glenn Stevens Jr., the executive director of MICHAuto, a trade organization based in Detroit.

For example, General Motors is building an energy-efficient plant in Hamtramck, Stevens said.

“That is a very traditional, old assembly plant that is being converted to build all-electric vehicles,” he said. “So not only will it produce an electric vehicle, it’s being refurbished with sustainability at the top of the chart with respect to how the manufacturing process will occur.”

Manufacturers are exploring new technologies such as waterless paint in an effort to reduce the amount of water, Stevens said.

Experts from other industries also said that continued development of technologies is needed to make them more eco-friendly.

Reducing carbon emissions might require generating larger amounts of electricity, said John Dulmes, the executive director of the Michigan Chemistry Council.

“We cannot defy the laws of thermodynamics. Chemistry needs energy,” he said.

Dulmes said, “We do expect that companies will find more energy-efficient ways to generate steam and ultimately electrify their process to make steam. If you’re electrifying steam production at a chemical plant, that means you’re going to need a greater amount of electricity.”

However, while it may be difficult to reduce carbon emissions in the chemical industry nationally, most of the state’s chemical industry centers on producing silicones and plastics, products that Dulmes said don’t require as much energy to make as some others.

The chemical industry is exploring alternatives to oil and natural gas for its operations, he said.

“With bio-based feedstocks, there is some opportunity to move away from the use of oil and gas as a raw material and to use things like wood, sugar plants, corn,” Dulmes said. “But that presents its own issues of land use and its environmental impact.”

Other industries face a greater challenge in increasing sustainability, as steel and concrete require carbon combustion in their operations.

“About 20% of the cost of making a ton of steel is related to energy costs, and those energy costs are direct natural gas consumption, direct electricity consumption and direct consumption of coal,” said Brett Smith, the senior director of government relations for the American Iron and Steel Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Those three energy sources are the lifeblood of making steel, and that’s why we’re energy-intensive, much more so than other sectors,” he said. “You can’t make hardened steel without emitting carbon.”

The iron and steel industry is focusing on increased use of hydrogen, as well as carbon capture practices, but the industry will likely remain very energy-intensive without the development of new technologies, Smith said.

The cement industry faces less of a challenge in becoming more sustainable than the iron and steel industry, according to Dan DeGraaf, the executive director of the Michigan Concrete Association.

One way the industry is reducing its carbon footprint is by incorporating limestone into the production process, he said.

Increased use of slag cement that incorporates leftover metals from refined steel production can also increase sustainability, DeGraaf said.

The development of new technologies is needed to reduce carbon emissions in the cement industry, and there is cooperation between the industry and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create such technologies, DeGraaf said.

For example, new developments include different mixes of cement that leave a smaller carbon footprint, such as those that incorporate limestone, he said.

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