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Tina Casey headshot

Electric Vehicles Are Good, but Industrial Decarbonization is Even Better

By Tina Casey
Steelmaking Plant - Factory - Decarbonization of Heavy Industries

For all the publicity surrounding electric vehicles, getting millions of Americans to drive a battery-powered car is just one piece of the decarbonization puzzle. Reducing industrial emissions is a more daunting task, and the Joe Biden administration has just announced a new plan to tackle the challenge head-on — hopefully, without running afoul of roadblocks at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The need for a national plan on industrial emissions

Zeroing out emissions from vehicles is important, and electric vehicles have key role to play in that endeavor. However, buying a new electric car is not the only way for would-be climate heroes to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to mobility.

Walking, biking, carpooling, combining errands, shopping locally and using mass transit are familiar ways to reduce an individual’s transportation-related emissions without having to buy a new car. Remote work, Zoom conferencing and other recent trends can also help. 

In contrast, individuals have little — if any — control over emissions from industrial operations. A national plan based on federal policies is the only effective way to accomplish that, considering the urgent need to accelerate action on climate change.

Bringing down industrial greenhouse gas emissions is just as vital as emissions related to vehicles. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, industrial operations account for about 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. That’s almost as much as the entire transportation sector, estimated at 35 percent.

The monumental task of industrial decarbonization becomes even more clear when emissions from industry are compared to emissions from passenger vehicles alone. Removing the 30 percent annual emissions from industry would be the equivalent of taking 631 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the road. 

Why not simply hand the decarbonization task to the EPA?

A new industrial decarbonization effort does not have to start from scratch. After all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been regulating emissions from power plants and other industrial operations since the 1970s.

However, that route has been tried before. Back in 2015 the Barack Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, which would have clarified the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. That plan never took effect. It was quickly challenged in court by fossil energy stakeholders and their allies.

The administration of former President Donald Trump followed up with a less ambitious proposal called ACE, or the Affordable Clean Energy rule. That plan was also challenged in court, this time by environmental organizations and their allies. 

The Biden administration never got the chance to revive the Clean Power Plan or formulate a plan of its own. The legal and constitutional standing of the EPA was stripped last summer, when the 6-3 majority of Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that curtailed the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Over and above that particular ruling, the current court has earned a solid reputation for overturning precedent and issuing opinions that appear more political than constitutional. For that reason, any new federal action on greenhouse gases needs to tread lightly around the EPA and seek new pathways.

The roadmap for industrial decarbonization

Rather than focusing on energy use in power plant emissions, the new Biden administration plan zeroes in on energy in other industrial operations.

The new plan avoids any new constitutional minefields because it does not activate the regulatory authority of the EPA or any other federal agency. It is simply a set of recommendations for public- and private-sector investment opportunities issued by the U.S. Department of Energy as the new Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap.

The plan focuses on iron and steelmaking, cement and concrete, food and beverage production, chemical manufacturing, and petroleum refining. These five sectors account for more than half of the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the industrial sector.

The plan lists four pathways for addressing energy-related emissions among these sectors, including energy efficiency, electrification, the use of lower-carbon fuels, and carbon capture with reuse or storage.

Among these four pathways, the Energy Department singles out energy efficiency as “the most cost-effective option for near-term reductions of greenhouse gas emission.” In addition to improvements in equipment and other hardware systems, this area embraces software-driven, “smart” manufacturing systems and advanced data analytics that improve productivity related to energy use.

Another Republican fly in the ointment

This all seems relatively harmless, especially to the extent that it helps investors and industry stakeholders improve their bottom lines by cutting fuel costs while creating new jobs and improving public health along the way.

Nevertheless, state-based Republican office holders have already been sharpening their knives against private-sector stakeholders who seek to invest in decarbonization.

Last fall, for example, Republican office holders in Texas passed a law forbidding public pensions in the state from doing business with any firm that “boycotts” fossil energy companies.

More recently, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined with 18 other Republican state attorneys-general in August to sign a letter addressed to the top asset management firm BlackRock. The letter accused BlackRock of discriminating against fossil energy companies.

BlackRock had previously provided Texas officials and other energy stakeholders with a detailed rundown of its considerable fossil energy investments in the Lone Star State, so it is unclear exactly why Paxton and the other attorneys-general chose to level such a patently false accusation specifically against this one firm.

However, the letter does serve as a warning shot. Other investors who see new opportunities in the Energy Department’s new Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap will have to tread carefully if they want to avoid becoming the next target of a high-profile accusation.

Money talks, hopefully

Meanwhile, the Energy Department is hoping that a new funding pot of $104 million for advanced industrial decarbonization technologies will motivate researchers and entrepreneurs to ignore the noise from right-wing electioneers as the 2022 midterm cycle heats up.

The new industrial emissions grant opportunity will focus on high-impact proposals that decarbonize key areas. That includes advanced reactors and separations systems in the chemical industry, clean fuels or electrification in iron and steel, and improved process heating systems for food and beverage operations.

In the cement and concrete area, the Energy Department is looking for new formulations as well as low carbon fuels and carbon capture.
Innovation in the paper and forest products industry is also covered by the grant opportunity, as well as technologies that apply to multiple sectors including the use of low temperature waste heat to for power, thermal energy storage, and industrial-scale heat pumps.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey