BlueGreen Alliance | Cementing Our Clean Industrial Future

Cementing Our Clean Industrial Future

April 10, 2024

By Ben Davis, Policy Advisor

The cement industry plays a vital role in the nation’s manufacturing and construction sectors. It is a foundational material in our national infrastructure, and with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act—spurring over $455 billion in public infrastructure investment during the Biden administration to date—cement production will continue to be a key part of the buildout of our nation’s clean energy and clean manufacturing transformation. As the United States onshores the manufacturing sector of the future—and as urbanization expands across the globe—the demand for cement is projected to grow significantly. Since 1971, the global demand for cement has risen by nearly seven times, and production is predicted to increase a further 12-23% by 2050. The transition to a clean economy itself will increase the demand for cement by as much as 1.3 billion tons, as more cement is needed for the construction of wind turbines, small modular reactors, multi-modal transportation and other clean infrastructure. 

Cement is just one ingredient in the final product that we interact with on a daily basis—concrete: the most common man-made substance on Earth. Put a different way, cement’s relationship to concrete can be compared to flour’s relationship to bread—it is a vital ingredient to the final product. Concrete’s massive physical footprint is obvious in today’s modern world, but the industry’s significant emissions of climate-warming gasses deserve more attention, especially now that historic federal investments in industrial decarbonization are being deployed.  

The transition to a clean economy will increase the demand for cement by as much as 1.3 billion tons. 

Concrete’s embodied carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—the sum of all the CO2 emissions associated with the entire life cycle of a product from its production, transportation, and end use—come almost entirely from the production of cement, which accounts for 8% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. With the planet warming and the demand for concrete rising, producing low-carbon cement is more important than ever. 

Reducing emissions in this vital sector must be a priority, and the United States could lead the way. An influx of public and private investments into lowering emissions from cement production are beginning to yield promising results, but U.S. manufacturers have significant ground to make up.  

Carbon Capture Addresses Cement’s Emissions Challenge  

Cement is one the most challenging industries to decarbonize because most of its climate-warming emissions come from a chemical process that is integral to production. Many industries have emissions that can be eliminated by electrifying processes that have long been powered by fossil fuels. Increasing our production of clean energy to power these electrifying industries must remain a top priority. Other more energy intensive manufacturers require levels of heat that electrification cannot achieve and are focusing on reducing emissions through fuel switching. But these pathways offer only marginal emissions reductions for the cement sector. That is because the primary ingredient in cement, clinker, is made by heating limestone in a kiln at high temperatures. During this process, CO2 is directly released from the limestone rocks through a process called calcination. These process emissions contribute about two-thirds of cement’s total CO2 emissions. While electrification, efficiency gains, and fuel switching have led to emissions reduction in many industrial and manufacturing processes, reducing emissions from limestone calcination requires a different approach. 

There are a variety of measures that can marginally reduce emissions in cement production, and producers should pursue those pathways. Clinker substitution and the addition of supplementary cementitious materials such as ground limestone, fly ash, and steel slag, for example, is an economically and technologically feasible method of reducing emissions right now. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), ambitious clinker substitution can reduce emissions in cement production by 30% or more in the short term. However, as clinker still represents a key ingredient of traditional Portland cement, these efforts are limited in their potential magnitude and cannot come close to fully eliminating emissions from the calcination of limestone during clinker production, which still accounts for 65% of cement’s overall emissions.  

These hard-to-abate process emissions raise a decarbonization challenge, and carbon capture technology is currently the best candidate to significantly reduce them. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act invested billions of dollars to deploy carbon capture across the United States. Because carbon capture at cement plants offers such a significant climate benefit, the sector should be one of the first to take advantage of these investment dollars. The influx of investment in carbon capture—over $12 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law alone—is a perfect opportunity for U.S. industry—and cement producers in particular—to invest in carbon capture projects and begin to lead the world in emissions reductions and the production of low embodied carbon cement.  

The Department of Energy recently unveiled their selections for the groundbreaking $6 billion Industrial Demonstrations Program, and they awarded one of the largest selections to the Mitchell Cement Plant, where the United Steelworkers Union represents the workers. The Mitchell Cement Plant Decarbonization Project is a first of a kind carbon capture and storage project from Heidelberg Materials that will be a significant leap towards producing low-carbon, union-made cement in the U.S. This project aims to capture at least 95% of the carbon dioxide emissions from the plant and store it safely in the subsurface, preventing 2 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere annually. This investment was one of six projects selected in the cement and concrete sector, which together are poised to receive $1.6 billion in federal investment and result in 4 million metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided annually. These projects not only underscore the United States’ commitment to climate leadership, but also positions the nation as a global leader in pioneering low-carbon cement production.  

There are important developments in cement decarbonization technology that should continue to receive attention and investment. Companies are making exciting technological strides in creative novel pathways of low-carbon cement production. For example, DOE recently made significant investments in the production of low-carbon cement via electrolysis and in cement production that uses calcium silicate rocks, eliminating the process-emissions that come from the calcination of limestone. These ambitious alternative production methods are garnering well-deserved attention, and they should continue to as they begin to scale. Although exciting, these technologies are still early in the process of reaching mass commercialization, and every decarbonization pathway is needed in a climate crisis where every tenth of a degree of warming has exponential impacts.    

To meet emissions targets set forth in the Paris Agreement, the cement industry must reduce its annual emissions by at least 16% by 2030. 

Jobs Potential 

The cement industry employs over 10,000 workers in the United States, more than half of which are unionized, with thousands more mixing and pouring concrete at construction projects across the nation. Investing in carbon capture offers huge climate benefits while also ensuring the future viability of well-paid U.S. manufacturing jobs in a net-zero economy. A Rhodium Group analysis of the economic advantages of retrofitting industrial facilities with carbon capture identified 87 cement plants across the United States as ideal candidates to install carbon capture within the next 15 years. The analysis found that over those 15 years, carbon capture retrofits across the industrial sector have the potential to create 64,000 installation jobs and 43,000 operations jobs. Notably, this analysis was conducted before the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. The law supercharged the 45Q tax credit to $85 per ton of carbon captured and permanently stored underground. With lower end cost estimates for carbon capture at cement plants at $61/ton, the increased 45Q tax credit can put carbon capture projects at cement facilities squarely in the black. 

Rhodium’s analysis underscores the employment opportunities and economic windfall that a concerted effort to deploy carbon capture in cement manufacturing can create. Investments in this technology are good for the climate, and they are an important step in securing the future of well-paid, U.S. manufacturing jobs in a net-zero economy—ensuring the longevity and competitiveness of one of the nation’s most important industries. 

The equitable buildout of carbon capture and its associated infrastructure will be vital to the long-term success of the technology. Projects must emphasize community and worker input alongside emissions reductions and climate benefits throughout the planning phase and full lifetime of the project. Benefits include a reduction in emissions of harmful particulate matter and air pollutants that bear an outsized burden on plant workers and fenceline communities. A recent analysis of carbon capture at cement facilities found that adding carbon capture could reduce particulate matter by close to 90% and nearly eliminate sulfur dioxide emissions. These pollutants are removed from flue gases before the CO2 is captured, resulting in improved air quality and health outcomes in addition to the aforementioned climate benefits. Project developers can also utilize a variety of tools—like community benefit agreements—to ensure those most impacted by the life of a plant are first to see the benefits of new investments and that union workers benefit from carbon capture projects. 

Carbon capture will play a vital role in the cement industry’s sustainability efforts, and recent federal investments mean that capturing emissions is now the right decision not only from a climate perspective, but from a worker and business perspective. Promoting a sustainable future requires leveraging carbon capture technologies to protect jobs while meeting demand for low-emissions products to build out our national clean energy and manufacturing transformation.  

By embracing carbon capture in the cement industry, we can create a win-win situation where U.S. manufacturing and job opportunities align with environmental responsibility and climate goals. Through careful planning, consultation, and monitoring, we can ensure that carbon capture projects at cement plants are implemented in a safe and sustainable manner. By recognizing the importance of carbon capture in the cement industry, investing in technological advancements, and implementing robust environmental safeguards and community benefit plans, we can drive the decarbonization of this critical sector of the U.S. economy. And to ensure the deployment of carbon capture results in the greatest climate benefit, we must ensure that the cement industry makes use of the significant government funding available to them so that as carbon capture gains momentum across the country, the cement industry leads the way.