Powering up with increasingly green energy
Multiplying initiatives to supply renewable energy to its plants worldwide
In 2017, Solvay’s global greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 12.3 megatons – equivalent to that of a large city. The Group’s current target is to reduce that figure by 1 megaton by 2025 at constant perimeter. And since two-thirds of Solvay’s emissions are due to the energy it consumes, whether purchased from third parties or self-produced, shifting the Group’s energy mix towards renewables or non-fossil fuels is a powerful way to act upon this.
There are three levers Solvay can use to reduce its energy-related emissions: switching types of fuel, sourcing renewable electricity and of course promoting energy efficiency to reduce consumption altogether. The first two are what interests us here.
Fossil to biomass
To produce the heat or steam required for their manufacturing process, some Solvay plants still burn coal. The idea for these plants is to replace coal with other, less emissions-intensive sources of energy. “Coal is still responsible for the largest share of our energy-related emissions, followed by natural gas and electricity,” explains Alain Michel, Solvay’s Head of Climate & Energy Transition. “But we are in a definite trend where the share of coal and gas is diminishing.”
In several instances, fossil fuels are being progressively replaced with biomass, in other words, the burning of bio-sourced materials such as wood or agricultural waste. For example, in Brazil, Solvay runs a facility that burns sugar cane residue to produce steam for the local sugar mill and power that is sold on the grid.
“This project helped us learn a lot about biomass,” says Alain. For starters, there is the necessity to carefully look at the long-term availability of biofuel resources. If you’re going to invest in powering a factory with biomass, you have to be sure a stable, local source of fuel is going to be available for the next 10-20 years.
Other examples can be found in Solvay plants in Dombasle, France and Rheinberg, Germany, where the explored solution is co-firing: replacing some of the coal burnt in their boilers with biomass. In Dombasle, a partnership was signed with a wood paneling manufacturer that is no more than 50 kilometers away. “They collect their wood dust and provide it to us as pellets,” details Alain. “But because of technical limitations of our existing boilers, we currently can’t inject more than 5-10% of biomass. We are studying a project to install new boilers, which could enable us to burn other types of non-recyclable waste from economic activities, such as foam from mattresses or certain types of plastics.”
Meanwhile, at a site in Zhangjiagang, China, a new boiler is currently being installed that will enable the plant to switch from natural gas to biomass. This will reduce CO2 emissions by 17 kilotons every year. Solutions involving biogas are also being explored for certain plants, as a replacement for natural gas and other fossil fuels.
Finally, in the vicinity of Grenoble, France, Solvay’s chemical platform at Pont-de-Claix has been plugged onto the municipality’s heating network. In wintertime, residual heat from the plant is injected into the system to heat the city’s buildings, and in the summer, unwanted calories from the city are used to power the facility. “The idea is to mutualize energy while creating a virtuous circle of renewable energy,” says Alain about this unique system.
By signing Power Purchase Agreements with renewable energy producers, Solvay directly contributes to adding new green electricity production capacities to the grid.
Tapping into sustainable power: green electricity
All these examples concern Solvay’s heat and steam needs. The second lever to increase the proportion of the Group’s consumption of decarbonated energy is to resort to green electricity, whether it’s by buying it or producing it.
The simplest solution here is to purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) from green electricity producers. “But it’s not an ideal solution: RECs don’t provide sufficient information regarding the origin of the electricity to be sure the megawatts you’re buying really contribute to reducing emissions,” explains Alain. For example, if a company buys RECs from a long-amortized hydroelectric plant, it might acquire a guarantee regarding the renewable origin of the electricity, but there is no real contribution to the fight against global warming.
A more beneficial approach is to partner with renewable energy developers through power-purchasing agreements (PPAs). This is what Solvay did in Jasper, South Carolina, by signing a 15-year PPA with the region’s largest solar farm. The deal ensured the project received the necessary financing to get it off the ground, and by powering Solvay’s factories in the area, the equivalent of 80 Ktons of CO2 emissions are avoided. “By signing these types of contracts, Solvay directly contributes to adding new green electricity production capacities,” says Alain. “It’s what’s called the principle of additionality. The principle of regionality is important here as well: we are sourcing green electricity in a region where Solvay has a strong industrial footprint as well as key customers. Our local stakeholders can directly relate to the project.”
With these principles in mind, Solvay is working on multiplying PPAs with partners around the world, for example in the USA, in India and in Poland, a country where the energy mix is strongly carbonated (most of its electricity is produced by coal power plants). “The high grid emission factor in Poland means that signing a deal with a green energy provider there generates more emission reductions than in France for example, where the electricity market is much less carbonated.”
Solar panels and wind turbines
Another solution to reduce Solvay’s dependence on carbonated energy is to produce its own renewable electricity by installing solar panels on the roofs of its building or even wind turbines next to its plants. This is typically done in partnership with local green energy producers: they handle the installation and receive financial support through Solvay’s purchase agreements.
Solar rooftops have been installed in this way at a Novecare plant in Bangpoo, Thailand. Other similar projects are under consideration in Panoli, India, and at Specialty Polymers plant in West Deptford, USA. “When the power goes straight from the solar farm to the factory, it leads to significant cost reductions as we do not use the distribution network, not to mention the benefits in terms of image and visibility,” adds Alain. “However, the capacities we can install in this way only represent between 5% and 20% of the plant’s consumption, due to the limited space available on our roofs or close to our plants.”
Finally, Solvay is currently working on a first for the company: the installation of a wind farm next to a Specialty Polymers factory in Changshu, China. “Thanks to this project, we are going to reduce our CO2 emissions there by 26%.”