When people think about energy, they don’t often think of industrial heat. But that heat is critical for sustaining modern life. Without a lot of heat, this very article could not exist. Heat is responsible for all of the infrastructure and almost all electricity in the United States and the world.
All heat is not created equal. There are many ways to produce it, but they do not all reach the same temperature or use the same amount of resources. When we think of industrial heat, the resources and methods used are critically important. You simply can’t produce the steel needed for buildings and structures without high intensity and concentrated heat in a forge, furnace, boiler, or other application.
Our supply chains themselves are run by planes, freight trains, trucks, and maritime vessels, which are themselves dependent on numerous heavy metal frames, engines, and other components. To even begin to think about our supply chain requires a vast amount of energy and much of it in the form of heat. From there, when we think of supply chains, we think of the raw materials and finished goods they are moving. They move coal and energy resources to produce the heat as well as mineral ore and scrap metal soon to be melted down and made into critical materials.
These supply chains also rely on energy. For the most part they use internal combustion engines that burn petroleum products like gasoline, diesel, and bunker fuel. That combustion is a small-scale intense episode of heat!
Increasingly, hybrid and electric vehicles are entering the market. These use electricity, which many may think of as separate from heat. The truth could not be more to the contrary. Virtually all electricity begins its journey as heat.
The primary forms of energy that comprise the U.S. electricity mix are natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. In each of these, highly intense heat is generated and often combined with water to produce steam. This in turn spins a turbine connected to a generator that creates electricity. It is the same electricity that enables household lights to come on when a switch is flipped as is used to start an electric vehicle. By and large, electric vehicles are plugged into the broader energy grid, where this heat-originated electricity is fed.
Anyone reading this article has heat-based electricity to thank for the backlit screens, heat-formed hard drives and electronics components, and heat-powered supply chains to move the raw materials, finished goods, and commercial markets to buy the device.
Because heat is so central to modern life, it is also a source of emissions and a major focus of those hoping to improve our way of life, expand our opportunities, and minimize our impact. There are many ways to accomplish all of these goals at once. Counter to many narratives, we do not have to sacrifice energy security to improve environmental conditions or rely on less effective means of power. Solutions that continue to provide for industrial heat may require thinking outside the box while still leveraging the framework of the box itself.
One example may be distributed hydrogen production. Rather than centralized production of hydrogen, which would require new infrastructure and be energy intensive in its own right, we may be able to leverage the existing infrastructure of natural gas pipelines and produce hydrogen by separating the methane molecule at its point of use. The same supply lines that run into forges, furnaces, and boilers using natural gas could then use clean-burning hydrogen without new infrastructure.
Other examples may also leverage distributed technologies, like small modular nuclear reactors that can generate large amounts of heat in more tailored settings. Small hydropower applications, and vertical access wind power provide similar opportunities to generate electricity, which can also be used to make heat. Making smart use of our resources, with industry and policymakers working hand-in-hand is the best way to ensure robust access to energy – even heat – while also being good stewards of our communities, environments, and resources.
So if the temperature outside is a little too high and you make your way to the thermostat to crank it down a few more degrees, remember perhaps counterintuitively that it is heat that is allowing you to make it colder in your home. Your AC is connected to the energy grid, which is made up of steel and wires made from industrial heat. Those all connect to power plants using heat to generate electricity!
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Executive Director
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.