Comment: How engineers will help high-heat industries achieve net zero

Angelo Giambrone, strategic growth programme manager at Spirax Sarco discusses how engineers can be the ‘decarbonisation champions’ industry needs

The past ten years have seen governments and organisations large and small line up to announce their commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions – be it 2030, 2040 or 2050. And if one thing is clear right now, it’s that these businesses recognise the urgency of the situation, with data from Accenture revealing that 84 per cent of companies plan to increase investments in sustainability initiatives by the end of 2022.

But how do we get from pledges and intentions to action and results? It will be our job as engineers on the ground to realise our organisations’ net zero strategies. For all the lofty – and morally right – ideals of the net zero movement, the success or failure of many initiatives will come down to the knowhow, intuition and technological capability of engineers.

This is especially the case in industries that involve thermal energy processes. Many of us are typically looking after complex plants that come in a variety of sizes, specialties, ages and efficiencies. Practically minded by nature, we want to be able to enact measurable change and make consistent progress as we support our organisations’ decarbonisation journeys – a particular challenge in companies that require high levels of heating in their manufacturing processes.

Concurrent efficiency, optimisation and elimination
The urgency of the climate situation means businesses must get into the mindset of addressing energy efficiency, system optimisation and carbon elimination simultaneously. For engineers on the ground, this will call for managing multiple workstreams at once, as there’s no time for purely linear processes here.

From simple good practice like having effective lagging, to capturing thermal losses that were previously considered unimportant or even unidentified, there is much engineers can do to optimise the steam systems they work with. And while the optimisation work is being carried out, industrial innovators continue to refine the solutions that will enable engineers to decarbonise their steam systems by electrifying their boilers – either by converting their existing model or by installing a new one.

Thermal energy storage will also become increasingly relevant as we increase industrial electrification and our reliance on inflexible renewable power generation. This is where external partners will be vital sounding boards when it comes to both identifying the right solutions and installing them at the ideal moment on an organisation’s net zero journey.

Data is the way forward
The nature of our jobs mean that engineers like to deal in hard facts. The more information we can access to inform our strategy and decision-making, the better. It’s no different as we set our sights on decarbonisation and similar topics like energy efficiency, where the essential foundation for change is having a full view of the operations and processes already in place.

This can be easier said than done. A common issue is that many businesses might still lack the data to fully see the way that energy is consumed across the site. The sticking point here is that if a business does not understand their starting point, it’s difficult to understand if and when they’re on the right track on their decarbonisation journey.

Engineers will struggle to understand where and why improvement need to happen, without quantifying everything that’s going on across a heating system. Without this, it’s hard to see exactly specific work will ladder up to the organisation’s overall net zero goals. But taking this quantifiable, data-driven approach doesn’t just inform better decision-making, it improves the collaboration between the executives setting the decarbonisation targets and the engineers implementing day-to-day change.

The power of partnership
No one knows a system better than an engineer. As the hands on the ground and because of their extensive knowledge, engineers must also be an integral part of any system developments. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to decarbonisation, meaning engineers and their organisations will benefit from an outside expert providing an objective evaluation of the best path forward.

Naturally, any partner will need to understand the engineer’s perspective, as well as appreciating their specific skills and in-depth knowledge of their organisation’s thermal systems and energy use. Where a partner can add the most value is by providing access to external thinking and the latest technologies that can help an organisation make decarbonisation progress in a way that best suits their specific circumstances.

Engineering the future
Organisations need to set themselves up for success as they go about decarbonisation. This means openness to outside perspectives and improving the visibility of their steam system through data. That is how engineers can help find the most effective way and eliminate carbon as quickly as possible in their organisations.

It’s time to act. As many as 93 per cent of the world’s largest companies will fail to achieve their net zero goals unless they at least double the pace of emissions reduction by 2030, Accenture research reveals. With a stark reality like this, there’s no time to lose. Engineers can be the decarbonisation champions by calling on external perspectives to help them manage the complex demands of the transition to net zero.

Angelo Giambrone, strategic growth programme manager, Spirax Sarco