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Heat treatment is the most energy-intensive process in many production plants. Heat treatment is therefore the process most affected by the impending energy transition. From a different perspective, however, it can also be said that this is where the greatest potential exists for successfully shaping the energy transition.

An increase in renewable energies in the electricity grids can be seen in all industrialized nations worldwide. The political goal in most countries is to achieve complete greenhouse gas neutrality in the electricity grids by 2045 to 2050. As with all political goals, the speed of the transformation process can be slowed down or accelerated by different political currents. Different countries also have different strategies. To summarise, it can be said that the direction is clear, but the speed of transformation is difficult to estimate. Perhaps greenhouse gas neutrality will not be achieved until 2065. However, anyone ordering a furnace today will be confronted with the issue even if the transformation is much slower, within the typical 40-year lifespan of a furnace. All the investment decision-makers we talk to are aware of this.

The biggest disadvantage of renewable electricity is its poor storage capacity. Battery technology continues to make progress and is now a real alternative to cars with combustion engines in the car sector. However, private cars are generally only used for one hour and the remaining 23 hours of the day are available for charging. Battery technology makes less sense for industrial heating systems, which have to run 24 hours a day, 5 to 7 days a week for reasons of efficiency. Therefore, if full electrification is chosen for heating a furnace system, you become dependent on the price of electricity, which is heavily dependent on government regulations and is on average around 2-3 times higher than the price of natural gas.

Most electricity tariffs are independent of the time of day and season. There are also limits on electricity peaks for large consumers. On the European exchange, however, the day-ahead  price of electricity is always set at midday, depending on the time of day (day-ahead price). For a supplier to offer a time-independent tariff, it must therefore take the fluctuations into account and hedge them with risk surcharges. Electricity suppliers are rarely prepared to aim for a loss on their tariffs (EDF from France is probably an exception here). The risk for an electricity provider is capped by choosing the most expensive energy source (often natural gas) in case of doubt and dividing it by the corresponding efficiency of electricity generation (30-40%).

This also explains why the price of electricity is 2-3 times higher than the price of natural gas. The same dependence on the price of hydrogen can be expected in the future. Green electricity will cost 2-3 times as much as hydrogen if it is converted back into electricity from hydrogen storage facilities. However, if solar or wind power is available, this only applies to the part that is additionally produced. This is because green electricity has almost only fixed costs, as no fuel has to be purchased for generation. It is often available to companies almost free of charge in certain quantities through their own generation plants without the need to use external electricity grids. Due to the complicated interrelationships on the electricity market, there are currently even negative electricity prices, as consumption rarely adapts to the generation volume and not all power plants can be shut down at will. The so-called base load of a power plant, below which it cannot be reduced, therefore disrupts the grids to a certain extent. This happens most frequently on Sundays and public holidays in summer.

Both the grid operators (in the ENTSO-E network) and the legislators are pushing for time-dependent electricity tariffs. In Germany, for example, electricity suppliers will be obliged to offer time-based tariffs to consumers with an annual consumption of 6 MW to 100 MW from 2025 and for all larger consumers from 2028 (smart meter law). In other countries such as France and the Netherlands, such tariffs are already available today.

We will therefore have to rethink in the next 1 to 4 years. The price of electricity can fluctuate from very cheap to very expensive on an hourly or quarter-hourly basis. Instead of procuring very expensive electricity from storable sources, it seems to make more sense to burn hydrogen directly with an efficiency of around 80%, for example, and to use natural gas until an appropriate infrastructure has been built. The choice of energy source must automatically be based on the following criteria: As CO2-neutral as possible or as cost-effective as possible (which is very often fulfilled simultaneously). An employee cannot control this type of variability manually, as such a short-term reaction around the clock is not reasonable.

It is also important to keep at least the heat treatment part of production running at weekends, which should also be fully automated in order to make economic and social sense. Monday mornings, on the other hand, will be a typical time for reworking and preparing batches in future, as this is when electricity is very expensive and therefore generally also CO2-intensive. In this way, the somewhat longer-term fluctuations can also be sensibly balanced out.

However, the greatest fluctuations are to be expected between summer and winter. Between December (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year) and February, we will have to rely on large energy storage facilities. However, the type of storage used will change from fossil underground natural gas storage facilities, oil and coal reserves to renewable storage facilities such as hydrogen.

The ATLAS Green concept is designed to adapt flexibly to all the conditions described above. For this purpose, both burners and electric heaters are installed, which can be operated individually or together. The burners can be operated with 100% natural gas, 100% hydrogen or 100% propane as well as with any mixture of these gases. To avoid unnecessary NOx emissions, the burners are operated flameless and achieve between 78% and 85% efficiency, depending on the variant. The heating source is selected using software that can securely read data from network operators in real time.

Recon IV Brenner

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