We got right into the swing of things in 2022 with the first web conference of the year for Transport Energy Outlook members and invited guests featuring a talk from Zach Byrum, Research Analyst with the World Resources Institute (WRI). In “Technological Pathways for Decarbonizing Petroleum Refining,” Byrum and colleagues at WRI discussed how U.S. petroleum refineries can reduce facility emissions and shift to produce low-carbon fuels for hard to abate sectors by utilizing existing innovative technologies.
Byrum presented the paper and talked about the following themes:
The analysis was centered on the U.S., but its key takeaways could be adaptable to international contexts. Why is an environmental NGO even talking about this issue at all? Byrum told participants:
“The answer lies in three points. First, we recognize that robust modelling indicates that fossil fuel consumption will decrease, but persist, in the next few decades Two, refineries as they operate today collectively emit more than any other U.S. industrial sector. Three, refineries present a unique decarbonization opportunity, largely centered around using clean hydrogen, that can provide lessons for other industrial subsectors. Because of these reasons, it is critical we explore ways to decarbonize the fossil fuel refining process as much as possible, just as we look for ways to decarbonize every other sector. Yet it seems that refining has received scant attention relative to other industries when it comes to discussing deep decarbonization.”
Byrum spoke in depth on primary options to decarbonize refineries, noting that the two key methods to reduce refinery emissions are changing the carbon-intensive fuel used to generate heat to low and zero-carbon alternatives and capturing the concentrated CO2 found in large process emissions from catalytic cracking and methane reforming. He noted, “To reduce heat emissions, we recommend electrifying low and medium heat generation with clean electricity and switching from fossil fuels to hydrogen for the high temperature activities. For large process emissions, carbon capture and storage, or CCUS, is an increasingly viable option, although difficulties and deficit of learnable experiences remain.”
He also spoke about the promise of clean hydrogen:
“It may sound like a catch-all solution, but low-carbon hydrogen—specifically that which is produced with refinery fuel gas and its emissions captured and stored—truly does offer unique prospects for refining. It can generate the needed temperatures for refining processes while only emitting water vapor. Capturing the emissions decarbonizes methane reforming. It is a low-carbon end use for fuel gas. And, on a broader level, it can jumpstart the clean hydrogen economy for other sectors.”
A future, low-carbon refinery, Byrum noted, would supplement crude oil with sustainable feedstocks like lipids oils and renewable biomass. It would also use syngas, created by synthesizing green and possibly blue hydrogen with captured CO2. Any large process emissions on site from gasification, catalytic cracking, or methane reforming would be captured. This refinery would ultimately create low-carbon fuels and petrochemical feedstocks. This aspect of the analysis referenced work completed by Concawe.