Solving Electrification Challenges for Chemical Manufacturers

Chemical manufacturing plays a key role in the UK industrial landscape, contributing around £25 billion annually to the UK economy. The energy-intensive nature of many chemicals processes means that alongside this substantial economic impact, chemical manufacturing also contributes substantially to energy consumption from the UK’s industrial sector. As manufacturers increasingly adopt electrification to replace processes previously powered by fossil fuels, this presents new opportunities to decarbonise, but also risks a substantial increase in energy intensity. Powerstar specialises in supporting manufacturers to roll out increased electrification while resolving some of the commonly encountered issues. 

Consuming around 3.4 million tonnes of oil equivalent annually, the chemicals industry makes up the most energy-intensive industrial sector in the UK, making up 14% of total demand. Nearly two million of those tonnes of oil equivalent, as well as half of the £2 billion that the chemical industry pays every year for their energy, is accounted for by natural gas. 

When it comes to sustainability innovation, the UK chemicals industry has excelled in terms of reducing the environmental impact of its products. The International Council of Chemical Associations estimated that currently, the energy used by the chemicals industry to produce a product is saved twice over during its lifespan, through lighter and friction-reducing products, reduced losses and improved yields. Chemical manufacturers are already supporting a broad range of sectors, including particularly energy-intensive ones such as agriculture, to trim their own carbon emissions. This also means that further improvements for a chemical producer in terms of reduced emissions and better energy efficiency results in compound benefit throughout the supply chain of their products.  

Increased Electrification 

With natural gas making up half of the sector’s energy consumption, the increased electrification of processes is a huge opportunity for the chemical industry to significantly decarbonise. However, it can be challenging to achieve this without running into two major issues: increased electricity costs, and a lack of sufficient capacity to electrify site systems.  

In terms of increased energy costs, on the face of it this appears like a major drawback of electrification, with wholesale gas prices around one-third those of electricity. While this is true to an extent, it also overlooks one of the main benefits of electricity outside of reduced carbon emissions: flexibility. Electricity can be managed, used and generated across a site more efficiently and intelligently than gas. Electrical replacements for gas systems, such as boilers, can be more energy-efficient, and for businesses struggling with rising costs across their supply chain, electricity is an area where savings can be unlocked and improvements made that isn’t possible with a fossil fuel-powered system.  

There is a broad range of ways to achieve this, including options such as on-site generation to produce electricity on-site, through better energy efficiency such as using voltage optimisation, or using electricity more optimally using an intelligent management system and storage. However, this links into the other major potential hurdle for electrification: sufficient capacity. 

With many chemical manufacturing sites already energy-intensive, many will already be close to their available supply capacity, the amount of electricity that their DNO is contracted to make available to them. To incorporate new electrical infrastructure, in many cases this will require an application to increase a site’s available capacity. Increasingly, applicants are being told that at best, they have a long wait for costly connection works to allow for increased supply to the site. Frequently, this application will simply be turned down outright, stalling important investment and infrastructure improvements, potentially indefinitely. 

Powerstar have worked with manufacturers in similar situations to provide an alternative solution, which is incorporating energy storage, on-site generation and an intelligent control system into a site, turning it into a smart microgrid. These smart microgrids are localised energy systems that, while connected to the wider grid, can operate independently when required.  

Using smart microgrids, new electrification processes can be incorporated into a site that are buffered from the grid by drawing from a battery storage system, while their increased demand can be met in full or part by on-site generation. This prevents a site having to negotiate a large available capacity, as well removing the risk of exceeding agreed capacity, which can be similarly costly. In addition, a focus on using electricity intelligently and capitalising on clean, localised generation has huge potential when it comes to not just reducing the carbon emissions of the chemical manufacturer themselves, but the supply chain partners and customers that rely on their products. 

Speak to our team about how Powerstar can support your business now