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Food and Beverage Sector Can Decarbonize by Electrifying Process Heat

Grant Samms
Dec 06, 2023

GHI Blog

After refineries, petrochemicals, and iron and steel, food and beverage processing is the fourth-most carbon-emitting sector in the US, responsible for 92 million MtCO2e annually. This means that food and beverage makers have a pivotal role to play in decarbonizing the US economy.

Much of the industry’s carbon emissions come from process heating for product preparation. Research by the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC), a global coalition dedicated to decarbonizing industrial heating and cooling processes, finds that 97% of process heat in food and beverage processing is below 130°C. That range is ideal for electrification with heat pumps, supplemented with other strategies like biogas and solar heating, to move processes like drying, fermenting, and cleaning toward net-zero emissions. Due to the urgent need for decarbonization, food processors are showing increased interest in using heat pumps for these processes.

This opportunity comes at a time when the policy and regulatory environments are poised for systemic change. More federal and state efforts are engaging with decarbonization challenges than ever before. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act earmarked a record amount of federal funding for decarbonization, while many states are shepherding their own emissions reduction programs. When paired with strong commitments from the private sector, these funding and policy efforts set the stage for overcoming barriers to decarbonizing industrial heat processes.

Addressable Barriers Are Slowing Adoption

Food and beverage companies interested in adopting heat pumps and electric boilers for production currently face barriers related to tangible examples, infrastructure capacity, and affordability. While there are examples of companies electrifying their process loads, they are still few and far between, which means that companies looking for tangible examples of electrification of specific processes or equipment may have trouble finding them. This lack of operational data limits confidence for any one company to be an electrification pioneer. It also hinders the development of training and certification programs needed to grow a domestic industrial heat pump workforce.

Compounding these barriers, the electric service serving many industrial sites is not designed to deliver the power capacity demanded by electrified processes. If the electric service needs to be upgraded, it could create additional cost and schedule challenges for the electrification of equipment. These issues are not limited to the food and beverage sector but touch all industrial facilities from automotive to pharmaceuticals.

Pathways to Decarbonization

While electrifying process heat faces undeniable barriers, collaboration among energy buyers, equipment solutions providers, and policymakers can help overcome these systemic challenges. The RTC, the World Wildlife Fund, and Guidehouse recently coauthored a playbook that guides companies looking to decarbonize process heat through heat pumps and electric boilers. By reviewing decarbonization potential at the plant level and assessing how alternative technologies could work and the resources that would be required, plants can contribute to corporate decarbonization goals and increase resiliency and readiness for upcoming pressures. Industrial plants can also volunteer to host trials of decarbonization and efficiency technology supported by federal or state agencies, thereby growing the body of practical feasibility studies while maintaining assurances in the event of unexpected complications.

With this information in hand, companies can advocate for needed systemic changes. Technical assessments can inform transmission planning processes and advocate for supportive electrical rate structures. Subsequently, companies can share their knowledge with other stakeholders, including their peers, equipment providers, local utilities, and policymakers. This exchange of information among a diverse range of stakeholders has proven successful in solving other decarbonization challenges, and it is similarly critical for industrial sites looking to lead on addressing the climate crisis.