Although the energy transition concept is usually associated with renewable energies or electric vehicles, there is another energy vector that is less often in the headlines but is key for achieving many of the objectives related to the decarbonization of the economy: thermal energy.

Around 90% of the energy consumed in the world today involves the generation or use of heat in its processes (e.g. in the residential, industrial or even food sectors). This means a high impact in environmental terms, which is further aggravated by the fact that, until now, few companies and entities opted for technologies and solutions that would allow them to reuse this generated thermal energy (with the corresponding ecological and economic impact), disposing it in many cases. Hence, in order to mitigate climate change and achieve greater efficiency and optimization in processes and costs, it is essential to research and develop technological advances in the way we store, convert and transmit thermal energy. Especially if we take into account the variety of uses and applications in which these solutions can contribute to decarbonization goals. 

Thermal storage as a low-cost solution

Although renewable energies are the most economical source of electricity to date, their intermittency and the time delay between energy production and demand means that they demand a storage solution. Currently, there are effective alternatives and technological lines, such as hydroelectric power plants or batteries. In the first case, the large infrastructure and amount of resources associated with hydroelectric power plants makes this kind of solution difficult to proliferate; in the second case, the expected high demand for storage will far exceed the expected capacity of electrochemical storage technologies, making it necessary to complement batteries with other types of technological alternatives in order to meet the total decarbonization targets to which Europe has committed itself for the coming years.

In this context, the potential of thermal energy storage arises. One of the great advantages of this type of system is its capacity to store large amounts of energy in intra-day operations at a relatively low cost. Hence, for example, its use in solar power generation through concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, which are expected to be able to supply 6% of the world´s electricity demand by 2030 and even 12% by 2050.

But beyond this use, thermal energy storage has great potential for applications and sectors where this solution can contribute to improving energy efficiency, such as in large industrial processes or in our day-to-day lives in homes or buildings.

A more energy and cost efficient industry

If we shift the debate to industry, which is responsible for almost 35% of total energy consumption, thermal energy storage and its efficient management become extremely important.

Intensive industries such as the steel, forging and foundry sectors, which operate at temperatures of between 300 and 1,500 degrees Celsius, are responsible for up to 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, in processes such as combustion, cooling, etc., they lose between 20 and 50% of their energy as waste heat, e.g. through exhaust gases.

This is where the reuse of waste heat from industrial processes becomes relevant. Recovering this surplus energy in the form of heat makes it possible to convert this energy into a useful resource. Moreover, thanks to the implementation of a storage system, it can be reused as a primary energy supply, thus causing not only a reduction in the industry´s energy bill and a consequent improvement in its efficiency, but also a clear reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, recent studies show that the investment in a storage system for industrial heat recovery has a payback period of less than five years for companies that decide to implement this type of solution.

A more sustainable residential sector thanks to thermal energy solutions

Another sector where thermal storage systems can have a major impact is the housing sector. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the residential and building construction sectors are responsible for more than 30% of global energy consumption and almost 40% of CO2 emissions.

Key to mitigating this impact are improving the energy efficiency of buildings, promoting an increase in the use of renewables and using more sustainable building materials.

One of the most significant advances that will contribute to increasing energy efficiency in the residential sector comes from the improvement of materials integrated into the building envelope. These materials can store a large amount of thermal energy, and thanks to this thermoregulatory function, they prevent the house from overheating in the summer months and reduce the need for heating during winter.

Meanwhile, to increase the penetration of renewable energies in the residential sector, air conditioning systems such as heat pumps are of particular importance. Moreover, according to the Spanish Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving (IDAE), although in 2019 Spanish households had about 4 million heat pumps, thanks to the decarbonization objectives, this number could reach 24 million in 2030 with an 80% of presence in the residential sector.

Indeed, heat pumps, in combination with a thermal storage system based on phase change materials, allow the entire installation to operate at a higher performance without the need to use fossil fuels, drastically reducing consumer´s bill.

An opportunity for competitiveness and development

In short, as can be seen, despite not being one of the best-known alternatives, thermal storage and its applications have great potential to become a high-impact and high-value energy vector. Not only from the point of view of the desired energy transition and decarbonization of the future, but also from the perspective of competitiveness for companies and society, as it allows the efficiency and optimization of processes and activities with their corresponding impact.

Hence, more and more countries and their industrial fabrics are betting on the development of these technologies, in order to position themselves as leading poles in the application of these solutions, boosting their competitiveness, efficiency and costs.

Not surprisingly, a PR Newswire report estimates that the interest that this industry has begun to generate will mean that in 5 years its worldwide value will exceed 5,300 million euros, which would almost double its current value. All this is supported by the technological development that, due to this interest, these storage solutions are expected to have in the coming years.

If you want to know more about these solutions and how they can help your business, we invite you to learn more about our activity and how we contribute to the development of these technologies and the companies that use them.

Miriam Gutiérrez, marketing and communication technician in CIC energiGUNE


In collaboration with:

Iñigo Careaga: BCARE Business Analyst

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