Bulk of technologies to decarbonise chemicals still in pre-commercial stages - IEA

Author: Tom Brown


LONDON (ICIS)--The majority of technologies necessary to decarbonise the chemicals sector remain in the pilot or pre-commercial stages and could take a decade before wide-scale deployment becomes feasible, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Thursday.

The sector is the largest industrial consumer of energy globally, and producers have taken steps to ramp up renewable energy use.

However, 85% of its energy use remains based  around hydrocarbons.

Technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) and electrolytic hydrogen – producing hydrogen from an electrolysis process using renewable resources – are key to decarbonising the sector but remain early-stage, with the timeline for technological improvements, cost falls and scaling up likely to be five to 10 years, the IEA said.

Innovations such as renewable hydrogen, CCUS and battery technology are all “ready for the big time”, according to IEA director Fatih Birol.

To drive those technologies to the scale necessary to meet climate change targets, government support in the form of tax credits, direct mandates and subsidies is likely to be necessary.

“In the absence of government interventions we cannot see these technologis maturing as quickly as we would like to see - this is clear” said Birol, speaking at a press conference in Paris on Thursday.

“Governments around the world will determine the fate of these clean energy technologies and whether we reach our climate goals or not."

Birol was speaking at the launch of the IEA’s latest energy technology perspectives report, examining the technologies and innovations necessary for nations to meet emissions-abatement targets.

Emissions from infrastructure such as chemical and coal plants, steel foundries and cement factories are likely to put greenhouse gas reduction targets out of reach without the development and deployment of technology responses.

Public support is key; Birol cited the example of the European Commission - the EU executive body - in placing hydrogen at the heart of its post-pandemic recovery plan.

On the other hand, the success in making solar photovoltaic energy the cheapest power source in some countries and the rise in offshore wind power demonstrate the power governments have to help develop and scale up new technologies, he added.

Technologies representing a third of the projected emissions savings necessary to reach net zero by 2070 are still largely at the prototype or pre-commercial level, according to IEA.

Under the faster innovation case assembled by the agency, which would see the world reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Researchers have made substantial progress on hydrolytic hydrogen, according to IEA energy policy head Timur Gul, with cost reductions and improvements meaning that the pipeline of installed capacity could jump substantially in the near future from a low base.

“Hydrogen is not one single technology but many different technologies for the production of clean hydrogen, and how we deliver it,” Gul said.

“If I would single out a technology, I think it is electrolysers that are almost ready for the [wider deployment].”

The chemicals sector is the largest consumer of energy worldwide, accounting for 30% of total industrial energy use.

However, the proportion of the carbon in sources that ends up in the final product rather than burned as part of the reaction means that the sector accounts for a lower proportion of total emissions, around 16%.

The industry consumes around 14m bbl/day of oil and 315bn cubic metres of gas, 14% and 9% of total global consumption respectively, the IEA said.

Chemicals producers face particular challenges in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) footprints, including the long lifespan of capital assets such as steam crackers and the high temperature needed for the cracking process.

Those high temperatures are currently impractical to achieve with electricity using current technologies, while sustainable biomass resources are insufficient for the task, according to the IEA.

The global and highly transportable nature of bulk chemicals and derivatives means that it is difficult for producing countries to introduce climate-abatement measures that raise costs without hurting exports, unless the measures are adopted on a global basis.

Eliminating emission entirely would require CO2 captured from the atmosphere, electrolytic carbon, recycled products and bioenergy, presenting an “enormous” long-term challenge, according to the IEA.

The extent of global investment needed for renewables and carbon capture would be equivalent to the equivalent of the world’s largest solar complex built every two days and the replication of the capacity of the current largest CCUS site every week, according to Gul.

“Markets can do a lot to mobilise capital and catalyse innovation but the role of government will be front and centre,” he added.

Graphic pictured shows projected evolution of chemicals sector energy mix as the sector moves towards net-zero. Source: IEA

Front page picture: Smoke rises from industrial facilities next to urban areas, Moscow, November 2019
Source: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstockv 2019

Focus article by Tom Brown.