Decarbonising industrial heat: The technologies of today and tomorrow


By Paul Miller, Sales and Marketing Director at Drax

Across an average year, industrial carbon emissions account for around 29% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) output. This makes it one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters.

A large part of the reason for this is the industrial sector’s need for heat, which is almost entirely generated by fossil fuels. Heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand and almost one-fifth of global energy consumption.

Decarbonising industrial heat is therefore a critical part of our global strategy against climate change. The trouble is that it remains a hugely complex challenge due to the diverse nature of the types of heat required. Fortunately, there’s a growing number of solutions on the market, including emerging technologies that can tackle temperatures requirements of over 1,000°C.

In this article, we’ll explore these heat decarbonisation solutions in greater detail to help manufacturers determine the best route for them on their journey to net zero.

Understanding the challenges of decarbonising industrial heat 

Manufacturers use heat across a wide variety of processes, which means the temperature and quality of the heat required can be vastly different from application to application. For this reason, it’s crucial that heat solutions are compatible with the various products and process conditions.

What’s more, replacing existing equipment and infrastructure can be capital-intensive, particularly when these assets haven’t yet reached the end of their lifecycle. Energy assets typically have a long life, so manufacturers may be reluctant to replace them.

What solutions and technologies are available to decarbonise heat?

Several technologies, such as solar thermal systems, geothermal heat pumps, biomass boilers, and wind-powered heat systems, can provide sustainable and low-carbon heat for industrial processes. Ongoing research is also aiming to address the demand for high-temperature solutions. At Drax, we can help you understand how to best integrate and leverage these new technologies effectively while supporting the UK’s wider push towards net zero.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Shallow /deep geothermal – can effectively generate hot water but is limited to some regions of the country and involves complex and often expensive drilling operations.
  2. Solar thermal – an excellent low-carbon technology that is underused in the UK. Solar thermal systems can absorb heat even during winter, cutting energy costs. It can also be installed in a new building at a relatively low cost and has a 20–25-year life expectancy. However, its efficiency depends on the deployment location.
  3. Heat pumps – currently the only available, scalable, and proven technology for fully decarbonising heat and hot water. Heat pumps can efficiently generate heat without direct carbon emissions. However, while they’re an efficient solution for low temperatures, they’re less effective for medium-to-high temperatures.
  4. Biomass and waste boilers – in additional to being an excellent source of renewable energy, biomass can also be used to provide low-carbon heat. Biomass boilers and combined heat and power (CHP) systems produce heat and electricity using organic resources like agricultural waste.
  5. Biogas/biomethane – can turn waste products into a sustainable and cost-effective source of heat and power. However, availability in the UK is limited, and the source of feedstock needs to be carefully considered to ensure it’s truly carbon efficient.

What are some of the emerging solutions to decarbonise heat?  

Several promising technologies are currently being developed to decarbonise heat within manufacturing. These include hydrogen, electroprocessing, and carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Each of these solutions will likely play a significant role in decarbonisation and is suitable for different temperatures and applications.

  1. Hydrogen – not likely to be used for general heating and hot water in buildings due to scarcity, cost, and inefficiency concerns. However, it shows promise for very high-temperature processes where no other alternatives currently exist.
  2. Electroprocessing – Direct electricity can be applicable in specific circumstances, such as short-duration and very high-temperature processes. It can achieve zero carbon emissions but may be less efficient than other technologies for longer-duration heating.
  3. Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) – an emerging technology that holds huge promise. Once fully deployed at scale, CCUS is likely to play a central role in providing negative emissions.

To support a zero-carbon, lower-cost energy future and meet the goal of being carbon negative by 2030, Drax is developing Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology. This transformative technology will contribute to decarbonising whole industries and organisations by enabling them to achieve negative emissions and address climate change.

How likely is it that the UK will succeed in decarbonising heat in time for the 2050 deadline?

The industry faces a significant challenge in decarbonising heat due to the enormous scale of heat used for processes requiring high temperatures. Unfortunately, this is an area of carbon emission reduction that has historically been neglected.

However, continuous advancements in low-carbon heating technologies including enhanced efficiency and availability are changing all of this. With the right level of urgency and investment, it’s highly possible that we’ll succeed. In the meantime, manufacturers should focus on developing a robust strategy which identifies the steps they can take today and the opportunities for the future.


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