Heat Pumps Are Scaling Up And Taking On Big Industry

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Residential heat pumps deserve a lot of credit for driving the decarbonization train, but home-scaled systems are no match for industrial processes that require steam. The US Department of Energy has been on the prowl for a solution and it has just made a $145 million bet on a new breed of steam-generating heat pumps aimed like a dagger at the heart of fossil-fueled boilers.

Who Could Use Industrial Heat Pumps?

The modern industrial economy is awash in steam. In addition to the giant boilers that produce steam for grid distribution, on-site boilers are commonly found in medical facilities, breweries, distilleries, fabric and paper mills, and food processing plants, among others.

All that boiling involves a lot of energy, and a lot of pollution, spread out over a lot of small-scale emitters as well as large ones.

Back in 2010 the US Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed rules for boilers located at area source facilities, meaning a facility producing less than 10 tons annually for a single toxic emission, or less than 25 tons for two, targeting mercury along with particulate matter and carbon monoxide as stand-ins for a range of pollutants.

The proposal covered facilities burning coal, oil, or biomass. For the time being, they left out gaseous fuels like natural gas and propane, as well as various kinds of solid waste. For those of you with time to do the reading, links to all of EPA’s boiler regulations, including larger utility-scale operations, can be found here.

Cleaning Up Steam, With Heat Pumps

The point is that there are a lot of moving parts in the steam-generating industry, and cleanup will take a while. One pathway, of course, is to develop new electricity-based processes that don’t depend on steam at all. However, alternatives are needed where direct electrification is impractical, overly expensive, or impossible.

That is why the Energy Department has decided that investing in industrial steam-generating heat pumps is worth the money, and they have tapped the energy-as-a-service startup Skyven Technologies to get the wheels in motion.

Skyven launched in 2013 with an initial focus on new solar thermal technology for industrial use. They credit that experience with the opportunity to get an in-person look at hundreds of uniquely different factories in the US, which inspired them to develop a heat pump solution that can be applied broadly, but tailored individually.

Skyven’s contribution to the field is “Arcturus,” a line of  industrial steam-generating heat pumps designed to reclaim low-temperature waste heat from industrial processes. The heat pump increases the temperature of the reclaimed heat to the point where it can generate steam in a boiler. Skyvent states that it matches the performance of conventional gas boilers on temperature, pressure, and quality.

Electricity generally costs more than gas, but Skyvent states that its heat pumps operate at triple the efficiency of gas boilers, which results in lower costs.

That efficiency element is important, because it enables Skyvent to overcome the difference between electricity and gas costs.

Arcturus is also designed as a drop-in decarbonization solution that can be put in place while a facility is operating, to be connected later during scheduled maintenance periods.

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$145 Million For More & Bigger Heat Pumps

Skyven already seems to have a winning sales pitch, and the Biden-Harris administration made it even more winning on March 25, when the US Department of Energy announced a new $6 billion round of funding for industrial decarbonization. The Energy Department tapped Skyven to lead a $145 million heat pump project under the title, “Steam-Generating Heat Pumps for Cross-Sector Deep Decarbonization.”

The details of the award are yet to be negotiated, but if all goes according to plan, Skyven’s heat-as-a-service model will eliminate the up-front cost of replacing a conventional gas boiler with an electric heat pump, while also eliminating the nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter associated with gas boilers.

As noted by the Energy Department, process heat consumes more energy than any other single manufacturing use, accounting for 31% of energy-related emissions in the US manufacturing sector. “Electrification of process heat technologies provides a huge potential for decarbonization,” they emphasize.

“By deploying this technology across multiple sectors, Skyven would demonstrate expertise and economic viability of this technology solution that can be replicated among diverse heat-using manufacturers,” the Energy Department notes.

No word yet on how many installations are covered by the Energy Department grant, but Skyven estimates that the award of $145 million will result in the elimination of more than 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, each year.

By way of comparison, EPA estimates that a typical passenger car produces 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Decarbonizing Industry, One Factory At A Time

Fossil fuel stakeholders are already resigned to losing markets throughout the transportation sector, including aircraft, trucks, locomotives, buses, and boats, as well as passenger cars. The residential sector is also skittering away, with heat pumps playing a significant role in the building electrification movement.

Industrial processes are up next, and Skyven is not only aiming to cut off emissions at the point of use. In standard carbon accounting, those are only Scope 1 emissions, meaning emissions generated by an entity at its facilities, which can be zeroed out by electrification. Skyven is also aiming for Scope 2, which covers the emissions generated by the source of the electricity, and they are not alone.

Skyven is a member of the Renewable Thermal Collaborative, which describes itself as the “leading coalition for organizations that are committed to scaling up renewable heating and cooling at their facilities and dramatically cutting carbon emissions.”

“RTC Members recognize the growing demand and necessity for renewable heating and cooling and the urgent need to meet this demand in a manner that delivers sustainable, cost-competitive options at scale.”

RTC has adopted a strategic approach inspired by large-scale electricity customers, which have organized their market clout to “drive down prices, simplify access, and scale deployment of renewable technologies.” That’s probably a reference to the Clean Energy Buyers Association, which calculates that its members have voluntarily contracted for more than 52 gigawatts’ worth of renewable energy capacity in the US towards a 2030 goal of a “90% carbon-free U.S. electricity system.”

Considering its focus on thermal processes, RTC is taking a more expansive approach that encompasses biomass, biogas, geothermal, landfill gas, renewable electrification, renewable hydrogen, and solar thermal.

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