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June 5, 2024

Tackling decarbonization of US industry with solutions at hand

The urgent and collective action required from the public and private sectors to tackle the climate crisis and reach net zero requires little introduction. In the US, 2023 surpassed 2020 as the year with the most billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, with around 30 events, spanning Florida to Maine, costing well over $90 billion in damage.  

Reaching net zero will require a variety of crucial components to fall into place, among the most significant being the decarbonization of high-emitting sectors.  

These energy-intensive industries – including steel, cement, chemicals and long-distance transportation – are often referred to as “hard-to-abate.” But hard doesn’t mean impossible. Instead, it’s a matter of investing in the right energy transition technologies to de-risk, implement at scale and drive down cost. In the US alone,energy-intensive industries account for more than 30% of carbon emissions. 

The good news is that, through a variety of solutions, technologies to produce fuels with lower emissions are available, proven and scalable. Simply put, there are opportunities in these industries to start decarbonizing. We just need to speed things up. 

Transportation – a high-impact industry 
As the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, the transportation sector is an obvious and strategic target for decarbonization action. Lowering emissions from existing levels will make a significant impact. 

Freight contributes an increasing share of total transportation emissions, rising from 24% in 1990 to 32% in 2021. In absolute terms, this is a 60% increase over this three-decade period. 

Moving freight requires heavy duty trucks, trains, ships and planes. The scope to decarbonize is therefore enormous and it will take societal, commercial and political will to enact the necessary transformation.  

Today, US commercial aviation consumes approximately 10% of all transportation energy and contributes 2% of the nation’s CO2 emissions. To decarbonize air transportation, the aviation sector has serious ambitions to transition to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The US Department of Energy (DoE) says SAF has the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel but with a fraction of its carbon footprint. 

The fact is that SAF can help reduce aviation industry’s GHG emissions by up to 85% compared to conventional jet fuel and 100% for e-jet fuels. It is fully compatible with existing aircraft and fueling infrastructure and can be implemented within existing structures. The DoE believes the US has the capacity to produce 50-60 billion gallons of SAF, an opportunity that should not be ignored.  

The technology to ramp up production of SAF is already available today. In 2023, SAF volumes reached over 600 million liters. While The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that SAF production is expected to triple to 1.875 billion liters  in 2024, this still only accounts for 0.53% of aviation’s fuel need. 

To ensure a wider uptake of SAF, we need to drive down costs through supporting policy frameworks such as incentive programs. Through key legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the US has an opportunity to position itself as a strong leader of change. Meaningful incentivization and legislation can help de-risk investment, aid scaling of production, and help producers and airlines agree meaningful offtake agreements. 

SAF is an environmentally and logistically favorable alternative fuel source for the aviation sector. There are several production routes already commercially advanced, including the production of renewable fuels from waste oils and fats, and e-fuels from green hydrogen, CO2 and renewable electricity.  

Today, one third of renewable diesel and SAF operating capacity is based on Topsoe technology, and our technology is at the heart of North America's largest SAF producer, Calumet’s Great Falls-refinery in Montana.  

From steel to cement to industrial processes 
Transportation is just one sector that has enormous potential to decarbonize while generating economic opportunity in the process. Industries such as cement and steel are also primed for decarbonization progress. Hydrogen is the only at-scale option for decarbonization in industrial processes, meaning their uptake should be a high priority to meet climate goals.  

Power-to-X covers a family of processes that use an electrolyzer to convert renewable power (P) into green hydrogen, the base reactant that can be transformed into a whole spectrum of versatile energy carriers (X). These include e-methanol, e-ammonia and e-SAF, as well as other e-fuels that can be used across industries. By changing the form of renewable energy from electricity to molecules, we make it a better fit for decarbonizing industries that cannot be electrified directly. 

As we develop and mature technologies using renewable energy, low-carbon hydrogen, also referred to as blue hydrogen, will play a pivotal role in the journey toward decarbonization.  

Technologies to produce low-carbon hydrogen are available, proven and scalable, and can help transform energy-intensive industries. Low-carbon hydrogen is produced by combining traditional hydrogen production methods with carbon capture. The hydrogen is then available to be used directly or transformed into low-carbon ammonia or methanol.  

Low-carbon solutions have a reduced carbon footprint compared to conventional solutions. With strict controls to ensure the lowest possible upstream emissions and safe and permanent storage of CO2 underground, low-carbon hydrogen, ammonia and methanol can contribute meaningfully to reducing carbon emissions.  

Today, the US is a market leader in low-carbon hydrogen and is committed to advancing the industry with a recently announced investment of $750 million for 52 projects across 24 states. Topsoe takes a pioneering role in developing technologies that generate hydrogen with minimal carbon emissions, often in partnership with its customers. This collaboration helps speed up innovation and up-scaling and ensures a customer-ready deliverable.  

Let’s get to work  
The massive deployment of renewable fuels, low-carbon fuels and e-fuels can fast track decarbonization in energy-intensive industries and long-distance transportation. Additionally, it will help strengthen energy security, while also contributing to job creation and cleaner, more affordable energy systems.  

The time has come to stop bemoaning the challenges in decarbonizing these sectors, and instead kickstart the journey to net zero now, leveraging the solutions we already have at hand. 


A version of this blog was originally published on FORESIGHT 29 May 2024 - see it here.

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