Why alternative fuel use in the cement industry is working so well

4 min read - published on November 2, 2022

In some regions of the world, the cement industry has gone from being one of the biggest enemies of environmental agencies to one of their closest allies. This transition from foe to friend has its roots decades ago and is owed largely to the industry’s use of alternative fuels.

Back in 2018, it was reported that if the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of CO2, behind the US and China. In the years since, the industry has continued to lead the way in terms of alternative fuel use, demonstrating the economic and environmental benefits of this often-misunderstood fuel.

The environmental benefits of alternative fuel use in the cement industry

One of the reasons why the cement industry has emerged as a front-runner in the use of alternative fuels is due to its (relatively) early engagement with it as a fuel source, which has given it time to investigate and disprove some of the misconceptions that persist around alternative fuels - notably, around environmental impact.

There remains a belief in some circles that waste in must equal waste out in terms of emissions. In fact, in cement kilns, it has been shown that there is a minimal link between emissions and the quality of fuel being used.

The chemical makeup of your alternative fuel

Regarding alternative fuels, the presence of contaminants is highly regulated. Buyers of alternative fuels can specify the chemical makeup of the fuel source, meaning dangerous trace metals can be avoided. This isn’t the case with coal and petroleum coke, where you largely get what you're given.

Aside from the additional control that alternative fuels provide in terms of emissions, they are also a proven way of reducing the environmental impact of cement kilns. The use of alternative fuels in place of fossil fuels could reduce emissions by nearly 10% by 2050 industry-wide. Individual kilns could enjoy sustainability benefits many factors higher.

Using alternative fuel in the cement industry is A Best Practice already

The use of alternative fuels is nothing new - particularly in the cement industry. Cement was one of the first industries to recognise the benefits of harnessing waste as a fuel source, being especially well-placed to tap into the benefits it provides. The cement industry has been using alternative fuels to varying extents since the 1970s.

The industry may have made some mistakes along the way in terms of its use of waste as a fuel source, combustion efficiency and product quality but the learnings from prior negative experiences are being fully adopted to avoid a repeat of previous bad practice.

European regulators have now declared the use of alternative fuels in cement kilns as best practice.

Increasingly, stakeholders, from consultancies like McKinsey & Company to universities like Imperial College London, are coming around to the environmental advantages of alternative fuels. The complete image overhaul that has accompanied alternative fuel use is such that European regulators have now declared the use of alternative fuels in cement kilns as best practice.

To find out more about these benefits, be sure to download the trend report ¨Myths & facts about the use of alternative fuels¨.

The economic benefits of alternative fuels use in the cement industry

In addition to its potential environmental advantages, alternative fuels are also well-suited to the cement industry due to the economic benefits they can unlock. Harnessing waste instead of using fossil fuels always promised monetary savings for kilns, but that is particularly so in the current geopolitical and economic environments where energy prices are at record highs.

Purchasing domestically sourced alternative fuels allows kilns to avoid wholesale fossil fuel prices, eliminate currency fluctuations, and dodge geopolitical disruption. The current economic reality means that some kilns may not be viable if they continue to rely on fossil fuels.

Fortunately, many of the beliefs preventing cement kilns from accessing the financial benefits of alternative fuels have been dispelled. In the past, it was often assumed that alternative fuels could only be used in newer kilns, would require major modifications to production processes, and would lead to process instability. In fact, alternative fuels can be adopted even by older kilns with many examples in operation today.

Review and audit your processes to burn more efficient

Prior to burning alternative fuels on an existing new or old kiln, it is now accepted as best practice to review or audit processes to determine exciting process bottlenecks. This will provide clarity for upgrade plans to modify existing methods of operation requiring minimal or no investment and to clearly target any capital investment that may be required.

It should also be remembered that the environmental impacts and the economic realities of the cement industry are often interconnected. Regulations to encourage sustainability, like The Emission Trading Scheme, will mean that using alternative fuels in the cement industry will simultaneously deliver environmental and economic advantages.

Alternative fuel use in the cement industry: Getting other sectors on board

Next to economical benefits, there are also important environmental advantages associated with waste to fuel solutions. First, developing a vision of where your business wants to be in 10 years in terms of emissions and sustainable fuels demonstrates your environmental awareness and socially responsible behavior.

Another unique benefit of waste-derived fuels is that they are directly available. Every country in the world has a ready-made supply of non- recyclable waste. As a company, you can make an enormous contribution to reducing the environmental impact of overflowing landfills by processing local municipal waste into valuable new resources.

And by using this local input to produce an alternative fuel, you will avoid emissions and costs created by international shipping (like importing coal for example). These advantages not only positively impact the environment but will also greatly improve the public image of your industry.

Now is the time to switch to alternative fuels

In the next few years, and certainly by 2030, global industries will face crossroads. With the specter of climate change leading to legally binding commitments that each country has made to reduce their CO₂ emissions and radically increase the use of alternative fuels sources, every industry will almost certainly need to make changes to its current production process.

N+P Group_mockup_Trend report 1_Replacing fossil fuels

Do you want to know more about the possibilities of waste to fuel and the implementation of alternative fuels? Discover how other major energy-consuming industries are getting rid of their CO₂ footprint and bad image with waste to fuel solutions. Discover the biggest trends and benefits in our latest trend report:

Download Trend Report  

Mockup Trend Report Alternative Fuels

Learn more about alternative fuels

Want to know more about how this industry successfully realized this transition?