Tackling Climate Change: Electric Boilers Are Suddenly in Vogue Again

(A growing number of facilities are installing new or retrofit high-voltage electrode boilers that are compact and economic, with zero emissions. Credit: Acme)

by | Aug 4, 2021

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(A growing number of facilities are installing new or retrofit high-voltage electrode boilers that are compact and economic, with zero emissions. Credit: Acme)

Due to the threat of global warming as well as international commitments to the Paris Accord on Climate Change, industrial producers in North America and Europe are tasked with significantly reducing their environmental footprint in record time.

In response, President Biden has set an aggressive new target for the US to achieve a 50% to 52% economy-wide, net greenhouse gas emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. The announcement, made at the Leaders Summit on Climate held in Aprilchallenges global leaders to raise their ambitions to truly tackle climate change on the scale required.

Biden’s new 2030 target increases the rate of US reductions compared to historic levels, while supporting existing goals to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by 2050.

The effort is also intended to create millions of good-paying, union jobs, ensure economic competitiveness, advance environmental justice, and improve the health and security of communities across America.

In December of last year, the European Union agreed to cut greenhouse gas carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. According to a recent report that has tracked the EU’s power sector since 2015, renewables surpassed fossil fuels last year (38% to 37%), indicating that industry is already pivoting away from carbon emissions.

While the interest of industry in electric boilers has waxed and waned in the last century, suddenly it is in vogue again.  Whether to honor ESG goals, meet regulatory commitments, or take advantage of government credits and incentives, a growing number of industrial facilities are installing new or retrofit high-voltage electrode boilers that are compact, economical, and produce no emissions.

This is, in part, due to technological advances in electric boiler design that increase the output to a level that rivals even large gas or oil-fired boilers. Whether utilized to produce high-pressure steam in power plants, replacing fuel boilers, for district heating, or maintaining power demand-supply balance, electric-powered alternatives are sure to be a critical piece of the puzzle in meeting future emission reduction goals.

Transitioning from High-Emission Gas and Oil-Fired Boilers

Besides the notorious greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), natural gas-fired boilers and furnaces emit dangerous nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter (PM).

However, many facility engineers familiar with gas-fired boilers mistakenly believe that electric boilers cannot match the output of the traditional, fossil fuel burning units. Due to considerable advances in electric boiler technology, that is far from the case. Today, such technology can match the capacity of large gas or oil-fired boilers in a much smaller footprint.

Electric boilers utilize the conductive and resistive properties of water to carry electric current and generate steam. An A.C. current flows from an electrode of one phase to ground using the water as a conductor. Since chemicals in the water provide conductivity, the current flow generates heat directly in the water itself. The more current (amps) that flows, the more heat (BTUs) is generated, and the more steam produced. Crucially, almost 100% of the electrical energy is converted into heat with no stack or heat transfer losses.

There is an entire generation of facility engineers that grew up with oil and gas-fired boilers almost exclusively,” says Robert Presser, Vice President of Acme Engineering, which, along with North American facilities, builds in Europe to European standards and has a network of CE-compliant fabricators for the pressure vessel, as well as partners in France and the UK for local equipment assembly.

The electrodes of the CEJS High Voltage Electrode Steam Boiler by Acme are vertically mounted around the inside of the pressure vessel, Presser explains. This enables the unit to produce maximum amounts of steam in a minimum amount of floor space, with boiler capacity from 6MW to 52MW.

The boiler operates at existing distribution voltages, 4.16 to 25 KV with up to 99.9% efficiency, and can produce up to 170,000 pounds of steam per hour. With pressure ratings from 105 psig to 500 psig, the boilers are designed to ASME Section 1, and are certified, registered pressure vessels at the location of the boiler, he says.

“As a result of preconceived notions, most view electric boilers as small underpowered units, like a hot water heater,” adds Presser.  “So, we frequently have to educate engineers that there is electric boiler technology that can match the capacity of large gas or oil-fired boilers available.

According to Presser, high-capacity electric boilers are well suited to supply auxiliary power virtually on demand.  Auxiliary boilers also are used to supply turbines with steam when high output is required quickly, and to heat process water.

In addition, the electric boiler technology is used for residential and commercial district heating, which is increasing in demand, particularly within urban centers. With district heating, distributed heat is generated in a central location through an insulated pipe system, and utilized for high-efficiency, lowpollution, space and water heating. For central heating applications, electric boiler technology quietly supplies ample power for its compact size.  This approach is currently being considered to install several 50MW steam boilers in the center of Manhattan, replacing gas-fired boilers to provide centralized steam to a number of buildings.

Electric boilers also have several advantages compared to oil or gasfired boilers, including superior safety, ease of installation, faster start-up and shut down time, and quiet operation.

“Electric boilers do not need an operator because if anything goes wrong, the breaker trips, preventing further escalation of the issue,” says Presser. “With gas burning boilers, however, any gas leak can increase the risk of an explosion. So, gas units must usually be continually monitored or periodically inspected.”  He notes that state and municipal safety guidelines vary depending on boiler type and the expected frequency of inspection.

With electric boilers, the energy input as well as adjustment is also precise and virtually immediate. In contrast, increasing or decreasing the temperature in a gas fired boiler is a slower process because it takes time for the heat in the boiler to rise or dissipate before reaching the targeted output.

As the US and EU resolve to dramatically cut their greenhouse gases to combat climate change, the urgency for industry to similarly reduce their carbon emissions will only grow. In this battle to protect the environment before the global climate hits an irreversible tipping point, industry along with government must do their part.  Fortunately, advanced, zero-emission electric boiler technology can be a readily implementable part of the solution.

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