Energy Flexibility in the Chemical Industry

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The electrification of the production processes in the chemical industry is seen as a promising option to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. This would result in a significant increase in the demand for electrical energy. The supply of electricity is becoming more fluctuating due to the variable nature of solar and wind energy. To ensure the stability of the grid, the consumption of electricity needs to equal the supply. Additionally, many countries are dealing with grid congestion, which means that there is insufficient transmission capacity for all consumers who want to receive power. One potential solution to these challenges is industrial demand response whereby companies adjust their electricity consumption to the available supply. The chemical industry might be able to provide this demand response through flexible operations of its production processes.
The goal of this research was to investigate whether companies have concrete plans to engage in energy flexibility with their production processes, and to determine the priority level they assign to it. This included examining how widely energy flexibility is incorporated into companies’ ten-year roadmaps, identifying the obstacles to electrification in the chemical industry, and understanding the challenges of operating chemical production flexibly.
To answer these questions, interviews were conducted with participants who work at chemical companies in the Netherlands. The participants were recruited by compiling a list of all chemical companies in the Netherlands and using LinkedIn to approach suitable candidates within each company with a request for an interview. Those participants who responded positively were interviewed using a semi-structured interview methodology in interviews lasting 30-45 minutes. The interviews were processed into anonymous summaries which were then used to answer the research questions.
Participants from twelve different companies were interviewed, representing approximately a quarter of all companies active in the Dutch chemical industry. These companies are active in a mix of sub-sectors of the chemical industry. A possible response bias should be noted, as companies already engaged in electrification and energy flexibility may be over-represented among these twelve companies compared to the chemical industry as a whole. Moreover, as only one participants was interviewed per company, there is a significant chance of personal bias affecting the results.
The results showed that flexible energy use was included in half of the twelve interviewed companies. However, it was a priority for only two companies. For the remaining four companies, flexible energy use was a side benefit of using both natural gas as well as electricity as a source for process heat in the transition to fully electrified process heat generation. Although four more companies had tentative plans for flexibility, they did not expect these to be feasible within the next ten years.
The results also showed that for eight out of twelve companies, lack of sufficient grid capacity was a crucial obstacle to electrification. However, only two of those companies indicated that they would be willing to consider operating their process flexibly in return for accelerated access to the desired grid capacity. The benefits of quicker access to the grid do not outweigh the obstacles to operating flexibly for most companies. The most important obstacles were related to the high investment cost of chemical plants in the chemical industry. At this juncture, the financial benefits of demand response do not outweigh the increased investments costs needed to make flexibility possible for most companies.