Why digitalisation and electrification are key to net-zero industries

Why digitalisation and electrification are key to net-zero industries

Schneider Electric 

Schneider Electric helps ArcelorMittal to modernise its electrical installation in line with its sustainability commitments 

The industrial sector must invest in digital technologies, electrify processes and find ways to reduce energy waste to navigate a successful path to a decarbonised future, says Schneider Electric’s Olivier Blum 

Guest contributor |

Did you know that the industrial sector alone produces a quarter of all global emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA)?  

Hard-to-abate sectors, such as the chemicals, steel and cement industries, are responsible for most of this. Not only are they heavily reliant on fossil fuels, but they often involve wasteful processes built on outdated technology – leading to inefficient and often expensive operations.  

The 2023 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that if we do not take action and instead stay on the current trajectory, we are likely to “overshoot” the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial times in the coming decades. 

Businesses in the heavy industries have realised they must act fast, so it is little wonder that the topic of decarbonisation dominated the conversation at Hannover Messe in April 2023. The general consensus is clear: the industrial sectors must do more to reduce their energy consumption and emissions if we are to build a more sustainable industrial future – and address the current energy crisis at the same time. They must eliminate energy waste, embrace electrification, and use digital technologies to manage this change.  

We already have the tools and know-how, so now we must find a way to deploy them more quickly and at a greater scale. The first step to achieving this goal is to embrace digital technologies more fully to help with everything from automating processes, to simulating production scenarios and training people remotely. Businesses can also increase end-to-end efficiency by using digital technologies to more effectively analyse operational data. 

Electrification will also be key to industrial decarbonisation. According to the IEA, only 21 per cent of industry’s energy is currently electrified but transitioning more activity to electric-powered equipment would drive both significant energy efficiency gains and emissions reductions. For example, we could use electric motors instead of steam turbines, heat pumps rather than reboilers or condensers, or electric heating in place of steam or fossil-fuel-powered heat. An industrial heat pump, for instance, can reduce energy intensity for steam production by up to 90 per cent.  

In addition, the industrial built environment can be digitalised, connected and integrated into energy management software systems to help measure and control energy-intensive electrical loads, while decreasing Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions.  

Schneider Electric is already helping industrial businesses to modernise their existing equipment. For example, the world’s biggest steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal has upgraded switchgear and transformers with Schneider Electric software and sensors at its Belval production facility in Luxembourg. This ensures it can monitor both energy use and critical electrical equipment 24/7, which has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 170 metric tons and reduced capital costs by 20 per cent. 

We must also focus on reducing industrial energy waste. Within industrial plants, approximately two-thirds of energy is lost or wasted before its intended use, according to a study published by Reuters. Digitalising industrial processes and leveraging digital twin technologies throughout supply chains, alongside software and analytics, can prevent such inefficiencies.   

Digital twins capture the operational data of industrial plants to create virtual, real-time models of their processes, showing how factories could potentially perform with different operational scenarios built within the software. Users can see how these changes might impact production, profitability and carbon emissions, empowering them to identify how to optimise resources and energy, and avoid waste.  

Experts from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council predict that digital twins will unlock $1.3 trillion of economic value globally by 2030. Such technologies are already being successfully deployed worldwide. Sanning Chemical, for example, used digital twins alongside enhanced automation and electrification technologies when building a new smart factory in Hubei Province, China. This improved workforce efficiency, decreased energy consumption by five per cent, and made operations safer and more stable.  

Public attention around decarbonising the global economy and reaching net-zero by 2050 is prompting critical conversations around reducing demand. Given the sheer size of the industrial sector, and its relative inefficiencies, it has a responsibility to be a leader in demand-side change. 

The industrial sector has a significant opportunity; it has the power to unleash a massive untapped energy efficiency potential and deliver significant savings too. To do so, it must prioritise electrifying industrial processes, upgrading industrial buildings and infrastructure, reducing energy waste, and partnering with digital automation and energy management experts. 

The tools are readily available. Now, industries around the world must start using them.  

Olivier Blum is executive vice president of energy management at Schneider Electric 

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription

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