CPI publish analysis into the practicality of electrifying UK paper industry

The sector has already worked in partnership with Government to produce a decarbonisation roadmap (UK Pulp & Paper Sector Decarbonisation Roadmap) that looks at the key opportunities and challenges around decarbonisation technologies.

One of the frontrunning ideas is to decarbonise production by electrifying heat generation by switching from natural gas to grid supplied power from a decarbonised supply network – a CPI Discussion Paper analyses technical challenges that need to be addressed.

As a further contribution to the technical debate, CPI has commissioned independent experts to further consider the practicality and economics of switching from gas to electricity in UK paper mills.  Such a switch would not only require heat boilers to be replaced with electrical boilers, but also potentially progressively decommissioning the sector fleet of gas-fired CHP plant and replacing their electricity with grid imports and electrical boilers.

This report (by Fichtner Consulting Engineering) takes a detailed look at the technical issues associated with providing upgraded connections from the electricity grid to the mill if mills were to decarbonise by switching from gas to electricity for process heat. The new report concludes that:

  • All site connections would need to be upgraded to allow a switch from gas use to grid supplied electricity.  None of the existing site connections are large enough to allow electrification.
  • Electrification will not be an option for all sites.  Even examination of a limited number of sites identified that such would be the increased requirement for electricity (especially at the largest sites) that the grid simply could not cope without reinforcement at all points of the regional supply network.  It follows that grid supplied electricity is unlikely to be technically or economically realistic at the largest industrial sites. The report assumes that additional electrical supply will be available at most sites, but noted that for the largest sites, alternative carbon mitigation measures such as switching to hydrogen may be a more feasible option.  It is further assumed that the Distribution Network Operator will agree to provide electricity as required at sites being switched from gas to grid supplied electricity.
  • Substantial changes will also be required at site level.  The report takes no account of the extra site costs associated with utilising this additional electrical supply – the boundary for the study being the on-site sub-station, with no equipment requirements downstream of this being included. In reality, electrification will also require a new on-site electricity distribution network and the replacement of existing combustion equipment.
  • Constraints on grid capacity are likely to be a key limiting factor.  The analysis did not consider any allowance for increased electrical demand from other consumers in each area.  However, it is certain that this will not be the case, as other non-domestic sites will also be seeking to electrify; as will domestic consumers as the roll-out of heat pumps and electric vehicles accelerates.

The report is one of a series looking at the challenges around decarbonisation and sits alongside a separate study (in partnership with Cornwall Insight – report here) looking at the Operating Cost implications of switching to grid supplied electricity.

Steve Freeman, Director of Energy & Environmental Affairs, CPI, commented, “Our sector has already delivered decarbonisation – in 2008 each tonne of paper made in the UK resulted in the emission of 0.64t of carbon dioxide, while in 2021 we’ve reduced this by more than a third to 0.4t with more progress on the way. However, today’s report highlights that electrification of heat will incur substantial costs in upgrading the national grid to allow increased generation of low-carbon electricity to be transferred from generation sites to consuming sites.  We’re concerned these grid reinforcement costs are being neglected by policymakers.  Required changes are not in the hands of industry and we need action from Government.”

Andrew Large, Director General, CPI, added, “The UK paper sector is determined to decarbonise and our updated sector decarbonisation roadmap shows that we understand how this can be achieved. But we need support both in the short term during the current energy crisis and also through the Transition to a Low Carbon economy.  Simply allowing the costs of energy in the UK to remain higher than elsewhere – and to increase even further, is a recipe to move production to places with lower energy costs outside the UK.”

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