Current energy systems are very wasteful – only one third of the primary energy ends up doing useful work. Indeed, two thirds of the primary energy that we collect from nature, distribute, and store is eventually wasted, mostly in the form of heat. Electrification will allow us to significantly improve the efficiency of energy systems – as power plants are replaced by wind and solar farms, internal combustion engines are replaced by electrical motors, and boilers are replaced by heat pumps. Electrification would allow us to perform the same practical work using only half of the primary energy – which will significantly lower the bar to decarbonisation.

Many people think that industrial heat is the hardest part to decarbonise. But Armstrong believes that industrial heat is actually the sweet spot for decarbonisation – and a significant opportunity that remains largely misunderstood and underestimated. To grasp it, we need to keep a few basic principles in mind:

-energy cannot be destroyed nor created. This means that all the energy that enters an industrial plant (typically electricity and natural gas) leaves the plant in the same quantity – mostly as waste heat.
-cooling is about taking heat out of air, water, or another fluid. It is not very intuitive, but cooling systems are actually significant heat sources. Currently, this waste heat is typically released into the atmosphere by cooling towers.
-most of the electricity used in industry is also transformed into waste heat. Chillers generate three times more waste heat than their electrical use, air compressors transform 90% of electricity into waste heat, and hydrogen electrolysers up to 30%. Current industrial thermal systems are designed as a ‘one-way’ flow. However, it is possible to transform them into circular systems, by recovering and reusing waste heat – Armstrong calls this concept Circular ThermalSM. Because waste heat is at a lower temperature, it often needs to be upgraded by using heat pumps. As part of its joint venture with the German company Combitherm, Armstrong plans to manufacture high-temperature heat pumps (reaching 120°C) in Belgium (Herstal). These allow low-pressure steam to be generated, which can then be compressed up to 200°C – thus covering all the light industrial processes that make the products we find in our bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. The impact can be significant – we can decrease the primary energy needed in the industry by half by applying ‘efficient electrification’. If we do not apply circularity to industrial waste heat, we will have to overbuild renewable capacities – only to continue wasting this precious renewable energy.

Circular ThermalSM is also the key to Europe’s energy independence and to green jobs, through the transformation of existing industrial sites. Furthermore, it contributes to competitiveness, as it decreases energy costs for industrial plants. Lastly, it does not create any inconvenience for citizens – they don’t need to change their consumer behaviour, as Circular ThermalSM systems are installed at industrial sites and run by engineers. Recovering industrial waste heat is an opportunity to bring consensus and a positive narrative to the decarbonisation debate.