Powering the concrete and cement industry with renewable energy: A pathway to a just transition for the construction sector

As the world continues to grapple with the urgent need to decarbonize its economies, one energy-intensive industry is quietly emerging as a vital area of focus in the transition to a low-carbon future: cement production. With global demand for cement projected to continue growing in the coming decades, the industry has the potential to make a significant contribution to achieving a “just transition” – a term used to describe the fair and equitable shift to a low-carbon economy that prioritizes the needs of workers and communities. In this deep dive, we explore the potential of renewable energy to power cement production and the benefits that such a transition can bring to workers, communities, and the planet.

The cement industry is a vital backbone of the global economy, powering infrastructure development and construction worldwide. It is the foundation upon which the modern world is built, providing the materials for everything from towering skyscrapers to sprawling suburban neighborhoods.

The need for continuous high-temperature heat to produce cement requires huge amounts of energy, much of which is still dependent on fossil fuels. This, combined with the emissions released by the chemical reactions inherent in cement making, mean that cement is one of the world’s highest-emitting industrial sectors, responsible for about 8% of global CO₂ emissions. 

As cities expand, new infrastructure is built to accommodate the growing global population. But with the cement industry responsible for such a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, the question arises: How can we continue to build the cities of the future without sacrificing the planet? 

Pressure on the cement industry to decarbonize has increased rapidly in recent years. Investors, in particular, are becoming ever more conscious of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues, and many are divesting from companies that fail to meet their ESG standards – putting cement producers at risk of losing access to capital if they don’t take action to reduce their emissions. Governments, too, are taking notice of the industry’s emissions. Last year, the US General Services Administration – the federal government’s procurement arm – announced new limitations on high carbon-emitting building materials for all its major projects. This move will affect billions of dollars of federal infrastructure investments. Meanwhile, as public scrutiny of CO2 emissions increases, environmental NGOs are now directly challenging cement companies over their contribution to climate change, putting the industry under the same spotlight as the oil and gas sectors.

Therefore, cement producers need to act quickly to demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable future, but decarbonizing the cement industry is a complex endeavor.

Approximately 60% of emissions from the cement industry come from calcination – a chemical reaction whereby calcium carbonate is heated and converted into calcium oxide. To curb industry emissions while still producing enough cement to meet growing global demand, many cement companies are looking to new technologies for a solution.

In September last year, the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) announced an agreement to scale up the deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) throughout the cement and concrete industry to increase the pace of decarbonization efforts. However, the technology is still in its infancy, and the capital required for it to reach scale is enormous. By 2030, the year in which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states global emissions must be halved to avoid climate catastrophe, the GCCA’s current target is to have CCUS fully operational at just 10 cement plants around the world.

With time running out, another potential solution to this problem is for cement producers to focus on reducing the 40% of their emissions that come from the electricity used to power their plants by transitioning to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Using power purchase agreements (PPAs), cement producers can obtain clean energy at stable costs without significant investments in new technologies or processes. It’s a model that many large energy users, such as Unipar, a producer of chlorine, chlorides, and PVC, and global chemicals giant Dow, have already adopted.

This approach can be seen as a quick win for the cement industry, as it allows producers to reduce their emissions profile without negatively impacting their bottom line. It also has the potential to create jobs and economic opportunities in the renewable energy sector. It can help position the cement industry as a leader in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Power purchase agreements (PPAS): A source of stability in a climate of change.

Cement and concrete remain the best building material we have for affordable housing, which is a critical component of inclusive and equitable societies, and the hospitals, dams, bridges, and public transport infrastructure that the world’s population needs to drive the inclusive economic growth of the future. It’s abundant, affordable, and locally available – just 5% of cement is traded between countries, according to GCCA figures – which means significant carbon savings in transportation versus other building materials. Its strength, durability, and resilience to extreme weather and hazards mean it can play a vital role in supporting infrastructure development in climate change-affected areas, and it can also be reused: at the end of life, it is 100% recyclable.

Atlas Renewable Energy understands the importance of reducing emissions in the cement industry and is committed to supporting the industry in its transition to a low-carbon future. Atlas partners with heavy energy users to provide clean, stable, and cost-effective energy, enabling companies to reduce their emissions profile and demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable future. 

The cement industry has a crucial role to play in driving economic growth and development for all. For more information on how Atlas can partner with the cement industry to accelerate decarbonization measures, get in touch.

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