Unlike the steel and cement industry, the glass sector has a clear path towards decarbonising its processes: electrification. Yet renewable electricity is scarcer than the industry would like, raising concerns about its ability to meet EU climate goals.
The glass packaging industry has a high recycling rate, upwards of 70%. It now wants to switch its gas furnaces to electricity in order to meet the EU’s 2030 decarbonisation targets, powering them with a mix of 80% electricity and 20% gas in the “Furnace for the Future” pilot.
Recycling, while less energy intensive than the production of glass packaging, is energy intensive nonetheless. The energy used has been fossil fuel based thus far, making recycling, and glass packaging production in general, less green than it is often assumed.
As a consequence, the annual emissions of the glass container industry are estimated to be around 8-9 million tonnes of CO2 per year, according to a senior spokesperson at FEVE, the European glass container industry body.
This represents more than 1% of EU-27 industrial emissions, a significant share.
Faced with pressure to decarbonise, the glass packaging industry has united to electrify its processes with the “Furnace for the Future” (F4F) joint undertaking. The aim is to build a proof-of-concept furnace in Germany where a multinational glass manufacturer, the Ardagh Group, is in charge of building the new plant.
Ardagh Group declined to comment on the state of construction.
The project aims to build a furnace by 2023 that utilises electricity to melt glass of all sizes and colours at workable prices, while being twice as energy efficient as traditional fossil fuel furnaces.
“We want to demonstrate that melting with 80% electricity is feasible. That’s the target,” said Fabrice Rivet, the technical director of FEVE.
For technical reasons, the first generation of electrical furnaces is forced to get 20% of its energy from gas. “For the second generation, we will certainly see how to replace the 20% natural gas still necessary to bring some heat above the melt,” said Rivet.
To do this, he said the industry is looking at options such as radiative electrical heat, hydrogen, or biogas for the second generation of electrical furnace, which is set to begin development in 2027.
If the initial pilot goes according to plan, the model could then be rapidly replicated across the container glass industry, allowing manufacturers to cut their emissions by 50% across all factories.
However, high research and electricity costs are holding back the industry, which has called for public support.
The F4F project hopes to tap into the EU’s Innnovation Fund, where it is currently at the second stage of the selection process to obtain a share of an estimated €20 billion worth of grants.
Renewable energy bottleneck
But while the industry’s new electrical furnaces are going to be more energy efficient than their predecessors running on fossil fuels, their decarbonisation effect is also heavily dependent on the availability of renewable electricity.
About 20% of Germany’s electricity comes from coal, and the industry is looking at green power purchasing agreements to secure sufficient amounts of renewable power in the future.
Yet the glass industry’s switch to renewables also exacerbates an issue that has already raised concern among other energy-intensive industries: the slow expansion of renewable electricity in the face of increased demand.
As the electrification of the economy moves forward, reaching new sectors like transport, buildings and industry, the demand for clean electricity is on the rise.
In Germany, electricity demand is set to soar to 700 billion kWh by the end of the decade, according to industry experts, up from 567.6 billion kWh in 2019.
A fast ramp up of renewable electricity capacity is therefore needed, otherwise the supply of renewables will soon become a bottleneck in other sectors like green hydrogen production, warned Ulrik Stridbæk, of Danish energy firm Ørsted.
“The European Union really needs to shift up a gear especially as we need to double the current renewables capacity again by 2030 in order to reach the 55% GHG target enshrined in the EU Climate Law,” warned Michaela Holl from Agora Energiewende, a think-tank.
These add to the picture of an energy market constrained by massive demand for renewables in the coming decades, unless construction of additional wind and solar capacity speeds up significantly.
According to Holl, this should provide further incentive for EU countries and private investors to build up renewable energy generation capacities as fast as possible.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]