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Can industry decarbonise and stay productive at the same time?

Author : Sophia Bell, Group Editor

14 May 2024

“There is a demand to be green, but at what cost?” asks Chris Poynter, Division President for System Drives at ABB Motion.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Time is running out for the world to reach its net zero targets and ensure that we do not exceed the crucial 1.5°C warming threshold outlined in the Paris Agreement. 

However, whilst the manufacturing and engineering industry has made significant strides in recent years towards more sustainable production, progress is hindered by a lack of access to the energy and technology needed to power green processes. How can a plant manager justify making their operations more sustainable, if doing so does not increase their production levels?

The journey towards decarbonisation demands a multi-faceted approach, incorporating strategic planning, robust support mechanisms, and innovative solutions. Three areas emerge as central to this endeavour: reducing the cost of renewable energy, investing in emerging hydrogen technologies, and enhancing the efficiency of traditional industrial processes.

Here, we examine how ABB is helping manufacturers to strike a balance between sustainability and profitability.

Reducing the cost of renewable energy 
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that 68 percent of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. Such a high level of urbanisation is expected to take a significant toll on existing energy infrastructure. This means that transforming the ways in which we produce and consume energy is imperative. 

Acknowledging the urgency of this transition, more than 100 countries at the COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai agreed to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

But how can industry convert this pledge into a reality?

According to ABB, it is important not only to invest in new infrastructure, but to ensure that existing, ageing infrastructure can continue to operate in a reliable and efficient manner. 

In this area, the company is taking steps to reduce the cost of renewable energy by optimising the performance of wind turbines. So far, more than 50,000 ABB wind converters and generators, which are expected to achieve up to 20MW, are in operation.

An application of particular note is Dogger Bank Wind Farm. Located in the UK, it boasts the world’s most powerful offshore wind turbines and is expected to play a key role in helping the country achieve its net zero ambition.

As part of an agreement with GE Renewable Energy, 95 medium-voltage converters are being deployed at Dogger Bank Wind Farm. The converters are rated to handle the high power output, with one rotation of each 220m diameter rotor generating enough electricity to power a UK household for two years.

“The selection of the right converter is critical to achieving the performance and reliability that yields the maximum return on investment. And medium-voltage converters are the optimum choice for today’s high-power wind turbines,” explains Chris Poynter.

Enabling scalable and efficient green hydrogen production 
In the drive towards decarbonisation, one area that surely cannot be overlooked is hydrogen. Hydrogen holds immense promise, with projections suggesting production could reach 600 million tons (MtH2eq) by 2050. 

The biggest barrier to widespread hydrogen production is arguably the significant investment it entails, with electricity consumption accounting for approximately 80 percent of the total OPEX cost.

Simply implementing the right electrical system configuration, however, can help to save up to 10 percent of the electricity needed to produce green hydrogen. 

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is one company that is taking the plunge. Looking to produce hydrogen efficiently, the company has employed ABB’s 200GW thyristor rectifier system in its solid oxide electrolysis cell (SOEC) test platform. 

ABB’s thyristor rectifiers ensure approximately 99 percent efficiency in power conversion when running at full-load operation, reducing the overall costs of reliable hydrogen production.

This project supports Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ vision to realise a hydrogen ecosystem by building the entire value chain from upstream to downstream, as well as underscoring ABB's own commitment to supporting the development of new technologies for the energy transition.

Bringing traditional industries into the future
Many traditional sectors (including oil & gas, mining, steel & iron, and marine industries, among others) are responsible for a significant percentage of global carbon emissions, still being relatively near the beginning of their decarbonisation journeys. As such, to be successful in reaching net zero targets, it’s important not only to invest in emerging industries such as hydrogen, but also to make long-established industries more efficient.

The steel industry, for instance, accounts for around five to seven percent of CO2 emissions. The largest carbon emissions come from using coal and coke in the blast furnace. Currently, 72 percent of steel is made using the BF-BOF process.

Steel use is projected to increase to 1.5 times higher than present levels by 2050. As energy accounts for about 20 percent of the manufacturing cost of steel, it’s crucial for the industry to be proactive in reducing its consumption. 

So, what does decarbonisation mean for the steel industry? The focus in the short term should be on converting to electric arc furnaces (EAFs). These repurpose scrap metals, rather than relying on raw or virgin materials. A recent example of this transition is Tata Steel, the UK’s largest steel producer, which recently made the decision to replace its blast furnaces at its Port Talbot site with an electric arc furnace. By embracing EAF technology, Tata Steel anticipates an 85 percent reduction in carbon emissions.

ABB, too, has been working to improve efficiencies in this sector. For example, Sims Metal, a leading Australian metal recycler, recently employed ABB’s ACS6080 medium-voltage AC drive, motor and transformer package for its metal shredding application.

The company was experiencing frequent high energy spikes, leading to a steep increase in energy consumption. Since installing the motor and transformer package, however, Sims Metal is operating much more efficiently, producing higher-quality output and increasing profitability.

Another traditional industry that has huge potential for increased efficiency is the mining sector. Thanks to the carbon-intensive processes involved (such as hauling, loading, and crushing or grinding), mining accounts for between four and seven percent of carbon emissions globally.

However, like the steel industry, much can still be done to improve efficiency. Alongside fleet electrification and renewable energy adoption, switching from open-pit truck operations to underground conveyor systems will play a significant role in this.

The effectiveness of this approach was recently demonstrated at the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, located in Chile. 

ABB equipped the site’s new underground operation with a large conveying system, eliminating the need for 120 large haul trucks. Covering a distance of almost 13km, it is the highest-powered gearless conveyor drive system in the world. As a result of this system, approximately 130 million litres of gasoline are being saved every year and CO2 is reduced by a staggering 66 percent. 

In summary
It’s important to acknowledge that the path towards sustainability is not straightforward; it will require a great deal of collaboration, innovation, and commitment from industry stakeholders – not to mention the high initial cost involved in the conversion to green practices. Nonetheless, as exemplified by ABB's initiatives, the benefits of being proactive in this transition are vast. Marrying sustainability with productivity is not only feasible, but imperative for a greener future.

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