Mr. Neeraj Akhoury is the CEO of Holcim India and MD & CEO of Ambuja Cements Ltd. Having over 25+ years of rich experience in the steel and cement industries, he has worked in leadership roles in India and other emerging markets. He joined the company’s board in 2020 and since then has played an active role as a member of the CSR & Sustainability Committee in driving the group’s sustainability commitments in India.

Enabling green energy for a zero-carbon future for the cement industry

When it comes to establishing sustainable operations within the cement manufacturing sector, climate change and energy security are global impediments that require an equitable endeavour for seamless functioning of its techno-innovation as well as socio-economic development.

Every year, more than 4 billion tonnes of cement is produced, accounting for around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions. As a key input into concrete, the most widely used construction material in the world, cement is a major contributor to climate change. For the cement industry to achieve its ambitious targets set under the Paris Agreement for 2030, the industry’s net emission annually needs to drop at least by 16%.

The cement industry is one of the most energy-intensive industries, accounting for approximately 30-40 percent of the total manufacturing cost and its annual energy consumption contributes to approximately 10 percent of the total energy consumed in the entire industrial sector. While most cement manufacturers found ways to reduce their carbon footprints by increasing energy efficiency through investing in carbon capture & storage technologies and lowering their clinker factor, there have been indirect emissions related to the use of electricity and heat in the cement plant.

Over the past 7 years, there has been a significant investment of USD 70 billion in renewable energy across the country due to its reliability, sustainability, and affordability compared to fossil fuels in India. Cement manufacturers such as Ambuja Cements reduced CO2 emissions by over 1.25 lakh tonnes in 2020 through use of renewables. Focusing on renewable energy assets will help build a zero-carbon future by complementing the existing power resourcing strategy with green power such as wind or solar for sustainable energy growth.

Challenges towards Powering Business Operations

Emissions from the cement industry come mainly from the energy used for heating kilns to produce clinker, which is 35% of total emissions and the chemical processes that convert limestone into calcium oxide. Currently, the industry is working towards enormous energy saving through the implementation of renewable energy sources especially Waste Heat Recovery (WHRS) and solar energy plants that reduce operating costs and improve the environment. However, the government and regulatory bodies need to strengthen the transition to renewables by providing necessary policy supports, incentives, and judicious tariff plan mechanisms.

One effective method that the industry is adopting is the use of alternate fuels. Use of alternate fuels remains a viable option because combustion takes place at a lower temperature resulting in a net global reduction in CO2 emissions as compared to dedicated incinerators. Additionally, alternate fuels are considered cheaper than conventional fossil fuels and are seen to have a competitive edge.

Cement plant owners will have to overcome their inhibitions and embrace new technologies for sustained growth while reducing their energy costs and protecting the environment for future generations. Investing in innovative next-practice platforms like the smart grid technology; can lead to lower costs as well as the more efficient use of energy. This grid will help manufacturers further optimize the energy used in technologies on-site, through meters, sensors and applications.

As the demand for power increases in India due to industrial and population growth, fulfilling the energy requirement could be a challenge in years to come. For meeting its rising demand for cement in the infrastructure sector, cement manufacturers, as well as the government, need to evaluate the current gaps and establish concrete partnerships to accelerate towards a low carbon economy.

By partnering with Switzerland, India is working towards reducing energy consumption and developing newer methods in the country for more efficient cement production.

Empowering Opportunities for Sustainable Energy Growth

Currently, the Indian cement industry is actively utilizing WHRS, which recovers heat from the cement plant flue gases to generate electricity. The heat which had been wasted is utilized for the generation of zero-carbon, clean electricity for its operations. Indian cement manufacturers such as ACC and Ambuja Cements under Holcim are actively investing in further developing WHRS worth Rs.  780 crores in India, given its successful generation of 83 million units in 2020.

Most cement plants in India are located in dry humid areas with enormous potential to tap solar energy. Through Solar PV or Solar Thermal (CSP-Concentrated Solar Power) Technologies, manufacturers that have installed solar power plants and solar water heating systems meet the obligations under both RPO and PAT mechanisms but also help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Companies such as ACC are actively diversifying their renewable energy portfolio by installing two solar power plants of 5.35 MWp solar photovoltaic plant at Jamul Cement Works, Chhattisgarh, and 380 kWp Solar PV plant at Kymore mines.

Manufacturers can also look at utilising wind energy or switching fuels. Wind farms built in areas of high wind at a distance to the manufacturing facility can be powered through the national transmission grid. Switching the fuel utilised for generating heat can also significantly reduce energy consumption – for instance consuming waste and biomass as alternate fuels within operations. The utilisation of hydrogen within operations, which has been actively promoted by the government, can also help significantly help decarbonise cement industry operations however, requires re-designing of the furnace for adaptability Cement companies are propelling a strong business growth story by sustaining manufacturing in an eco-friendly manner. Through strategic investments in placing renewables across its operations, cement manufacturers can help India not only meet global climate targets but, combat the very serious and current problem of the high levels of air pollution, a major issue impacting the health of the population contributing to its Social Return on Investment (SROI).

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