The EU petrochemical sector has made important strides in reducing both its emissions and its use of energy owing to improvements in manufacturing processes and enhanced product performance.
The petrochemical industry is focusing on creating products with enhanced performance, which in turn reduce energy consumption during their lifetime. Such examples include insulation in construction, lightweight plastics, solar panels, wind mills and water purification systems. The sector has also made significant progress in managing water resources more efficiently, reducing its use and preventing water pollution.
Reducing CO2 Emissions
Over the last 30 years, the petrochemical industry has set out to mitigate the effects of climate change and minimise its environmental footprint.
It has made notable progress and continues to strive to reduce it further. The European chemical industry as a whole has made dramatic reductions of its CO2 emissions, effectively more than halving them between 1990 and 2015 (-60%) while increasing its production by 85%.
Key to the sector’s environmental strategy is reducing its energy requirements, in particular the energy intensity levels.
By 2015, energy intensity -energy consumption per unit of production- in the chemical industry, including pharmaceuticals, was nearly 60% lower than in 1990.
Managing water more effectively requires a coordinated approach.
Water is vital and in a number of European regions, the balance between water availability and demand is becoming strained. Water is not only used for drinking and sanitation but is also an important component in industry. Water is required to produce energy and water uses large amounts of energy in its supply and transmission systems. With a move towards a bio-based economy, demand for water will only increase. Many of the current waste water treatment systems are unsustainable. The chemical industry is one of the largest users of fresh water and is subsequently also a leader in water treatment materials, technologies and conservation initiatives with its E4Water initiative.
The initiative aims to decouple economic growth from an increase in use of water. It develops, tests and validates new integrated approaches, methodologies and process technologies for water management within the chemical industry. It also investigates how these approaches could be applied across other sectors, for example, farming and manufacturing. Its impact is already significant since it has managed to reduce water usage by over 40%, waste water production by 20% and energy use up to 20%. Contributing to this initiative are large players in the chemical sector, EU water companies and research and development centres from a number of universities active in water management. The E4Water concept aims to continue to reduce water stress to aquatic ecosystems by decreasing the required uptake of fresh water combined with a reduction in pollutants released into the environment.
Chemical oxygen demand (COD) is used to represent the potential of chemical emissions to water to remove dissolved oxygen that would otherwise support aquatic life. The chart shows that between 2007 and 2014, the COD intensity of the EU chemical industry fell by 25.5%.
Enhanced process efficiency drives energy savings.
In order to create products, there is a minimum energy expenditure requirement that will always exist, regardless of process efficiency. One of the ways that the sector is attempting to counterbalance even this reduced energy spend is by ensuring it extracts full value from the energy it uses. Essentially, the petrochemical sector is continuing to pursue one of its core strategies of “doing more with less” and one way is by operating closed-loop value chains which means that a by-product from one process becomes the raw material for another.
Closed-loop industry typically works in a number of ways, for example:
- The waste from a process is simply re-used and there is no need for processing or modification prior to its re-use.
- The material might need to be recycled or reprocessed, but once it has been modified, it can be used for the same purpose, for example, plastic bottles.
- Recovered material is modified and reused in an entirely different process.
- The closed-loop system has a number of benefits such as reducing the amount of ‘new’ raw material required and facilitating waste disposal by turning waste into a useable material.
Process efficiency not only makes good environmental sense, but also economic sense. For the EU petrochemical industry to be in a position to compete with other regions, it will need to continue to refine its production processes to ensure optimisation of efficiency in energy use. Regions outside Europe have an advantage as they benefit from lower feedstock and energy prices in turn making it easier for petrochemical producers to offer more competitive pricing for their products. The European petrochemical sector can only partially claw back savings through increased efficiency and is required to urgently continue its investment in innovating enhanced energy efficiency measures.
Building on the success of Spice3 originally launched in December 2013, Cefic announced in January 2016 a fresh investment round to support this innovative Spice3 project to help European chemical companies improve their energy efficiency. Spice3 was the largest ever multilingual online platform for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to enable energy efficiency effort to flourish from the bottom up.
Enabling innovation in energy efficiency
Without continuous technological innovation, further energy savings will become increasingly difficult to attain. While petrochemical producers have made huge progress in energy reduction, they have almost reached a physical limit where any further reduction would not be of the same proportions as that already achieved. To continue the momentum of energy savings, the petrochemical sector is focusing on creating products with enhanced performance, which in turn reduce energy consumption during their lifetime. Such examples include insulation in construction; lightweight plastics used in cars and transportation, solar panels, wind mills and water purification systems.
Within the EU, heating causes approximately 14% of GHG emissions as up to 75% of the heat inside a building escapes through poorly insulated external walls. This is not only a challenge on a European scale, but is in fact a global issue as according to the International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 report, heating and cooling in buildings and industry account for approximately 40% of final energy consumption — which is a larger share than transportation (27%). Stemming the loss of energy in the building sector remains a high priority.