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How Manufacturers Are Developing and Using Renewable Energy

Across the globe, manufacturers are increasingly developing new ways of using renewable energy to strengthen clean energy competitiveness in various industries.

Process heating systems are critical to the global manufacturing industry's ability to turn raw materials (such as oil, iron ore, trees, crops, etc.) into products (including plastics, metals, paper and food). These systems use energy to generate, supply, transfer, contain, or recover heat energy. The manufacturing industry must increase the efficiency and reduce the energy utilization of these systems in order to be competitive, while reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. remains the largest manufacturing country in the world, producing 21 percent of manufactured products on a global scale, and "$1.7 trillion of value each year, 11.7% of US GDP," according to the National Association of Manufacturers. All of that manufacturing requires a significant amount of energy usage, particularly in electricity. According to a June 2014 report on renewable energy in manufacturing from the International Renewable Energy Agency, "Electricity accounts for around 20% of final energy use in manufacturing, and is used for the production of aluminium, equipment, and lighting and cooling in factories."

On a global scale, "The energy-intensive sectors, namely iron and steel, chemical and petrochemical, non-ferrous metals, non-metallic minerals, and pulp and paper, are estimated to continue to use more than 75% of industrial energy use (including feedstock). However, they account for less than 5% of all global manufacturing plants (30,000–60,000 plants globally)."

Renewable energies offer the most effective method for reducing this energy consumption, and manufacturers around the world are exploring unique ways of using renewable energy with this goal in mind. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy's 2013 Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative is directed at increasing our manufacturing competitiveness by leveraging low-cost energy resources and boosting energy productivity.

Among the options for effective renewable energy technology, manufacturers are focused on some key methods and substitution systems, such as biomass, solar thermal systems, and electrification.


The versatility and substitution potential of biomass make this the top option for renewable energy in manufacturing. It can be used as a suitable replacement for fossil fuels, fuel for localized energy production, and is a viable producer of low-, medium- and high-temperature heat (Note: high-temperature heat applications make up more than two-thirds of the heat demand for total process). Additional factors pertaining to the economic viability of biomass include its reduced production costs, high energy density, shorter distance for transportation, and increased options for transportation methods.

Solar Thermal Systems

Solar thermal systems have a significant potential for industrial process heating worldwide. While these systems are primarily used for low-temperature applications, new designs have been deployed to serve applications requiring up to 400°C. Small scale plants and industries that are less energy-intensive (like the textile and food sectors) have a significant technical and economic potential for renewable energy through solar thermal systems. However, the limitations of high initial capital costs and low deployment rates have resulted in a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.


At 20% of final energy use in manufacturing, the demand for electricity is only expected to grow. This is due in part to electrification of production processes and the production growth of manufacturing industries that are electricity-intensive (such as non-ferrous metals). The decarbonization of the power sector is necessary, but other options for increasing the renewable potential of the electricity sector are possible. Some top solutions include the relocation of these industries to be within close proximity to renewable energy power plants and on-site renewable energy electricity generation. Technology development in the manufacturing industry and power sectors is necessary for effective deployment of increased electrification with renewable energy.

Some of the unique ways these methods are implemented in commercial manufacturing include energy-efficient and self-sustaining facilities and plants that are fully powered with renewable energy sources such as wind turbines and solar power.

Portable, Efficient Facilities

Manufacturers of tensile fabric structures for mining, construction, aviation and other commercial industry applications are also participating in the transition toward a sustainable energy future. For example, fabric buildings for commercial manufacturing industries are made from highly resilient materials that last for many years in even the most extreme climates. They are equipped with proprietary environmental control and power systems to optimize energy use, provide stand-alone power generation, and insulate facilities to reduce energy loss.

Diversifying Manufacturing Power Sources

Manufacturing plants and factories around the world, and in the U.S. in particular, are implementing alternative methods of power generation from renewable energy sources in order to increase production and reduce their energy usage. Tesla Motors, for example, is breaking ground this year on a factory in Sorey County, Nevada that will run entirely on energy from solar panels, a nearby wind farm and geothermal electricity plant. Method Soap is already operating a LEED-certified platinum factory with on-site renewable energy sources such as a 23-story wind turbine and solar photovoltaic collectors. These alternative power sources in renewable energy are significantly contributing to slowing the impacts of climate change in manufacturing.

By developing and implementing these effective alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, the industry is increasingly achieving innovation, growth and competitiveness in clean energy manufacturing across the globe.