Role of Grid Decarbonization

12 April 2021
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The following piece is an excerpt from the report, Embodied Carbon: A Clearer View of Emissions.


It’s no secret that emissions from a building’s energy use are inherently tied to the “cleanliness” of the grid. With increasing urgency surrounding anthropogenic climate change, there has been action to pursue less environmentally-taxing energy alternatives. In 2018, only 18% of U.S. electricity generation came from renewable resources. However, while the use of electricity will continue to rise, the switch to renewables is projected to amount to 31% of U.S. electricity generation by 2050, according to the U.S.Energy Information Administration’s 2019 Annual Energy Outlook. The switch to renewables naturally has the greatest impact on the more energy-intensive processes of operating a building, such as regulating the ambient temperature, managing plug loads, and providing adequate lighting. By increasing renewables to decarbonizing the grid, there is also a direct impact further upstream at the inception of a material’s life cycle. Steel and concrete, for example, are two energy-intensive materials that are commonly specified in construction. An important question to think about is how the gradual decarbonization of the grid will ultimately impact the carbon footprint of these materials and, subsequently, how they are used in construction projects.

Calcium Carbonate

Up to 96% of CO2 emissions of a concrete mix are attributable to the cement content. The culprit is the calcination of calcium carbonate accounting for close to 60% of concrete’s total CO2 emissions. In this process, pulverized rock is heated in a kiln resulting in the desired clinker, a chemical binding of the input material. The thermal decomposition naturally produces CO2 as a result, thus acting as a significant limiting factor in the ability to reduce concrete’s carbon footprint. Other contributors to CO2 output in the manufacturing of concrete accounting for the remaining 40% include aggregate production, concrete plant operations, kiln fuel, and transportation. These CO2 emissions are byproducts of combustion, a chemical reaction that occurs when using the cement kiln and transporting resources to the cement plant. Most of the energy used to make concrete (as much as 88%) is from non-renewable fuels that are harnessed primarily for the manufacturing of cement. While the energy used for both concrete plant operations and concrete manufacturing is included in the Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), the resources needed to create this electricity and fuels—known as the upstream profile—is intentionally excluded. Because the majority of concrete’s embodied carbon comes from the chemical reaction needed to form cement, improvements to the grid would be negligible.

Hot-rolled Coil

The two main methods in which steel is produced are the blast furnace/basic oxygen furnace (BOF) and electric arc furnace (EAF). The EAF process uses scrap steel melted via high-current electric arcs while BOF steelmaking blasts oxygen to remove impurities from molten iron to convert it into steel. One of the primary outputs from both EAF and BOF steelmaking is hot-rolled coil that is typically further processed for use in other applications. 

“In the U.S., all hot-rolled sections are produced using scrap-based electric arc furnaces.” Approximately 98% of the primary energy demand (PED) of the formation of a hot-rolled coil is from non-renewables. Upstream processes, including electricity generation, are close to 100% responsible for the PED and are responsible for approximately 35% of the global warming potential (GWP) of the hot-rolled coil. Similar findings from the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for fabricated hot-rolled structural sections reveal that the raw materials supply stage, which includes upstream activities, has the highest PED and accounts for 85% to 95% of impact assessment categories such as climate change potential and ozone depletion.According to the World Steel Association LCI Study (2018), it is evident that “steel production is an energy-intensive industry and therefore the consumption of energy and electricity is one of the main contributors to the environmental impact of the steelmaking process.” Given that electricity is a critical input, steel’s environmental impact is a direct function of the grid’s energy source. It will also be location-dependent as different countries and regions have a distinct electricity grid mix.

Grid Decarbonization

Grid decarbonization will likely have positive impacts on the steel carbon footprint, given steel’s high reliance on electricity to transform the raw material into its structural form. The same cannot be said for concrete whose production is fuel-intensive, but mostly independent of the grid and includes emissions due to the calcination process.

A material’s embodied carbon is also a function of upstream energy generation—a compelling reason for requesting EPDs from material manufacturers. The distinction between industry-average data and producer-specific data should be made when soliciting environmental impact documentation. For steel, the current de-facto standard is to provide industry average values, given the variations of processes across fabricators. Nonetheless, asking for product- and supplier-specific data is an important tool the specifier can use to influence individual manufacturer choices and to spur manufacturing innovation.

It is also important to remember that steel and concrete are only two of hundreds of materials that we use in construction, there are other considerations aside from electricity usage that should be weighed to understand their contributions on a larger scale. Transportation arrangements, project schedule and cost, and social equity implications should all be part of the holistic evaluation of a given material. If we want to decarbonize our buildings, our first step should be to consider the materials we specify.

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