Substantial decarbonization of industry is possible, but needs to start now

By Kelly Altes 

In an interview for a recent ACEEE blog post, Elizabeth Dutrow of the EPA’s ENERGY STAR Industrial Partnership states that U.S. manufacturing industry carbon emissions could be reduced by as much as 86 percent by 2050. Achieving this, she added, would require significant action in energy efficiency, material efficiency, technology upgrades, and the creation of power-grid synergies. 

Such a huge reduction in emissions also requires motivated owners. At IMEG — and we assume elsewhere — we have seen increasing industrial client interest in addressing environmental issues. Lowering their carbon footprint also has become less of a return-on-investment issue for owners and more of a public perception and business risk issue. For example, owners who file ESG reports — valuable information used by many customers and investors — can help differentiate their business based on their environmental stewardship, including their carbon footprint. 

Helping clients reduce their carbon footprint requires addressing both operational carbon (emissions), i.e., from electricity/power usage and refrigerant from their facilities and equipment; and embodied carbon — that which exists in the material and structure of a facility. For long-term property owners who can afford the first cost, investing in today’s highly energy-efficient equipment is a no-brainer for reducing operational carbon. Since most of a building’s lifetime energy use and cost occurs over long-term operations and maintenance (see pie chart), an even larger impact on emissions can be made by investing in system monitoring and verification equipment. This allows plant engineers to continuously evaluate actual building operations, identify and correct sub-par equipment operation, and eliminate unnecessary energy use. 

Different approaches are required to reduce embodied carbon. Typical strategies include the use of sustainable and low-carbon materials like wood and low-carbon concrete mixes as well as mechanical and electrical equipment and refrigerants with reduced embodied carbon values.  

Designing a low-embodied-carbon building should begin with a comprehensive life cycle assessment early in design so engineers can provide the best strategies that align with the client’s carbon-reduction goal. The assessment can include comparing different structural materials, analyzing building skin design with the architect, and reviewing different finishes with the interior designer. The reliability, expandability, flexibility, and resiliency of the building also should be considered. In addition, having lower embodied carbon at the beginning followed by lower embodied carbon replacements and renovations as the building ages will reduce the overall embodied carbon across the building’s life.  

Power strategies also should be considered by owners — many of whom anticipate business risk related to the power grid of the future. (Full electrification of building infrastructure, dependent on a future decarbonized grid, also is gaining attention as many companies commit to driving natural gas usage to zero.) Alternative and sustainable power strategies include photovoltaic, wind, micro grid, co-generation, battery storage, and off-site private power generation. At IMEG we have developed an in-house tool to model these strategies and adjust variable inputs like square footage of PV, cost of power per kW, etc., allowing clients to project energy and carbon reductions and make informed decisions. 

It’s critical that these and other strategies be considered by industries across the U.S. if we hope to achieve the 86 percent reduction in emissions the EPA states is possible over the next 30 years. “Many different approaches are needed to achieve deep decarbonization by 2050,” says Dutrow, adding, “Industry needs to start now.” 

With manufacturing accounting for 25 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, such a reduction would be a substantial win for environment.