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Developing Solar Energy Technologies Could Help Process Heating Demands

Technologies that enhance solar energy production could meet process heating demands, reduce carbon emissions, and improve heating efficiency in the U.S. industrial sector, providing 15-50% energy savings. Due to the complexity of the industrial sector, and lack of accurate data, several economic and technical issues prevented large-scale development in this sector.

A team of scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has completed the first detailed review of solar industrial processing heat technologies and its applications at a national level. Earlier, research so far has focused on the future potential on a global scale. 

The team at NREL, along with partners from Northwestern University, published their findings in the article “Solar for Industrial Process Heat: A review of Technologies, Analysis Approaches and Potential Applications in the United States” published in the journal Energy. 

Experts from the team explained that the future role of solar energy technologies in the energy system is the least studied sector. The research paper summarizes the essential facts and information for industrial process heat. It provides a solid foundation for thinking about how solar energy can play a more significant role in this sector.

Industrial process heating is a crucial step in manufacturing to treat and transform raw materials, capturing about 70% of the U.S. manufacturing energy use. For years, the industry has been produced primarily by fossil fuel combustion, account for 90% of manufacturing process heat energy in 2014 compared to 92% in 1992. About half of the heat demand process occurs between low to medium temperature ranges.

Food and beverages, metals, and textile industries, which have lower heat requirements, have the highest number of installed SIPH systems, particularly in solar energy-rich areas in the United States. The study revealed that SIPH technologies available today, mainly solar thermal and PV electric heating, could meet a wide range of temperature and heat applications. There are several opportunities to integrate these technologies into cleaning, cooking, and pasteurization technologies.

Much of the energy used for industrial process heat may be suited for solar technologies. The study provides a foundation for understanding the current landscape of matching solar technologies to process heat demands. It also recognizes essential research questions for analyzing the technical and economic potential in the United States for production and large scale adoption of these technologies.

Integrating solar technologies into the industrial sector could also improve heating efficiency and save production costs. Solar energy could recover waste heat losses from equipment and products. The payback period for the waste heat recovery system is typically less than two years. Still, many plants have chosen not to pursue these technologies.

The team found that the most commonly seen barriers to SIPH adoption include a limited budget for capital energy investments, budget cycle constraints, and a lack of dedicated engineering staff for energy efficiency projects. To understand technical and economic questions, the analysts recommend future research on integrating energy efficiency measures in SIPH models and developing load profiles to match process requirements with solar resources. The next priority will be researching the production costs and SIPH potential in the U.S. industrial sector, impacting facility-level decision making.

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