Episode 103 Edited Highlights – Dr. Silvia Madeddu
Michael Liebreich If I could start by asking you, in your own words, what it is that you do and who you are? I came across you because of your extraordinary work on industrial heat and the electrification of industrial heat.
Dr Silvia Madeddu So normally I work as an expert in industry decarbonisation strategies, and right now I work for Schneider Electric. I worked for four years at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, where we published the first technical assessment on the feasibility of industrial electrification.
Michael Liebreich And, of course, from the Potsdam Institute, we had Johan Rockstrom on Cleaning Up. I'm not supposed to have favourite episodes, but that was one of my favourite episodes. Your findings in your paper were that actually much more of industry can electrify than we were calculating at the time. Is that a fair synopsis?
Dr Silvia Madeddu Absolutely, yes. When we think about electrification, we think of electrifying the transport sector through electric vehicles, and we think of electrifying the residential sector with heat pumps. And then here comes industry… Until I wrote my paper, there was not much talk about electrification of industry; industry is considered a hard to abate sector. While it’s true that industry relies on fossil fuels, it’s not that transport was not relying so much on fossil fuels or residential is not relying on fossil fuels. 70% of the energy demand from industry comes from fossil fuels, and it's all used for heat purposes. So, we thought that the best way to decarbonize that sector is to decarbonize its energy supply.
Michael Liebreich And the thing that I usually hear about this stage is that high temperature heat can only be delivered by gas…
Dr Silvia Madeddu Actually, we have plenty of electric technologies that can supply heat to very high temperatures, temperatures that are even higher to those that industry needs in their normal processes. So, we don't have any problem in terms of the temperature that electric technology can reach. I wanted to understand why we didn't use electric technologies more in industry. It’s not an engineering problem; it's not that scaling up these furnaces, electric appliances, is an engineering problem. It's more, I don't have demand for it, so I don't have a market for it, so I don't produce the furnace. And by not producing the furnace and not implementing the furnace in an industrial process, I don't improve the technology. So, there’s been no opportunity to optimize the technology to make it more efficient and to integrate it better in an industrial context. We found that with mature technologies, we can electrify up to 78% of industry’s energy demand. If we were to include the technologies that today are currently under development - meaning that there are demonstration plans, these technologies are being piloted - then the potential would increase to 99%. So, huge, huge potential.
Michael Liebreich Which is essentially all industrial heat… Can you talk about the efficiency of processes comparing the gas route, the fossil fuel route to the electric route?
Dr Silvia Madeddu So, in general, what we found is that electric technologies are either comparable, but more often, they are more efficient than gas-based, combustion-based processes. So, there are efficiency gains that are associated with electrifying the industry. To supply one kilowatt hour of heat, heat pumps consume eight times less energy than a boiler. They are much more efficient than any boiler, either electric or gas-fired. So, we really have proof that it would be very beneficial to electrify industry from the point of view of reducing energy consumption. There are also other benefits, for example, cement has many process emissions that are coming from the decomposition of limestone. What is the problem today, if we want to capture these emissions is that the CO2 coming from limestone gets mixed up with flue gases. So, if we had an electric kiln, we would have a pure stream of CO2 from the limestone and we wouldn't have any other flue gas. That pure stream of CO2 can then be directly captured without having to separate it. Also, you would have no on-site emissions, most likely, because you get either electricity from the grid or you produce it yourself from renewables.
Michael Liebreich Coming to costs, the problem is that this electricity, per unit of input energy, is three times natural gas, or at least it was before the current spike in gas prices. Surely the correct comparison is electricity against hydrogen?
Dr Silvia Madeddu If we use electricity directly, we have a clean energy source directly delivered to our industrial processes with very little efficiency losses, because electric technologies are very efficient. There are huge efficiency losses in the production of hydrogen. So, for example, to convert electricity into hydrogen I think the efficiency is 70%. Then in combustion, we have other efficiency losses. If we produce e-fuels, we have another efficiency loss because we have to convert the hydrogen to the e-fuel, and then we have to take these e-fuels and combust them. So, overall, it's not an efficient way, not the most efficient way to use our clean electricity. It is possible that hydrogen will become cost competitive in certain markets. But I don't see hydrogen competing on the cost directly with electricity, electricity that is produced from renewables, because renewables today are the cheapest energy source that we have, so.
Michael Liebreich But there is something else though, which is that renewable electricity is intermittent. And a lot of these processes need continuous power…
Dr Silvia Madeddu The big challenge for industry using renewables is exactly this. The industry can never shut down. Industry has, most of the time, continuous operations, and we need a very stable energy source. But for this, we have energy storage opportunities, and there have been huge developments in this field. We have multiple companies developing solutions as we speak, including thermal batteries. It is definitely possible to make industrial processes more flexible in the energy demand, but also to have storage technologies that are implementable in industry and supply the heat the industry needs. We need to think of industry, when we think of electrification, similarly to when we think about smart houses and smart buildings, or smart cities; we have to think of industry in exactly the same way. Industry will have to become a smart industry. The prices of the costs of storing energy in batteries, the price of batteries have decreased I think by 70%, in the past 20 or so years So the cost of storing energy is always decreasing. Historically, it's true, we thought that storing electricity would be much harder. But thermal batteries are showing us that actually it's not, it is possible.
Michael Liebreich And when you talk to corporates, and when you talk to governments, do you find them on board with this? If nobody's making a furnace to make bricks electrically, that feels like it'd be a huge advantage, a huge competitive opportunity.
Dr Silvia Madeddu You touch on a very, very important point, which is, in my opinion, when I spoke with companies, manufacturers of these furnaces, they were not aware that maybe this electrification wave was coming. So, they were asking me, ‘ah, but do you think that actually there is a market for this?’ Some of them, you know, they were a bit surprised, because they were used to thinking ‘okay, for that market, I produce a gas-fired furnace, then for this other niche market, I produce an electric furnace.’ So, companies need to understand that there is a huge business opportunity here, because we are in desperate need of expertise and know-how.