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‘First Research of its Kind’ Probes Energy-Reducing Strategies in Asian Textiles Sector

Electrification could reduce the textile industry’s energy usage by roughly one-third in China, Japan and Taiwan, according to recent research funded by New Balance and Patagonia.

Translating these savings into carbon emission reductions, however, will require energy grids to migrate to renewables. Of the four electrification technology pathways researchers studied—industrial heat pumps, electric steam boilers, electric thermal oil boilers and electric wet-processing equipment—only the first was found to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 across China, Japan and Taiwan.

Electrification of wet processes could result in carbon savings by 2030 in Taiwan and Japan, but not China, while electrification of steam boilers and electric thermal oil boilers would result in higher annual emissions by 2030, the study said.

The researchers projected all four technologies would lower carbon emissions by 2040, assuming all three countries shift their power grids to renewables such that they become carbon neutral by 2050. China, however, plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, 10 years slower than the researchers account for.

The paper notes that these findings should only be interpreted at the country level. If an individual textile plant electrifies its process heating demand and purchases renewable energy, such as through a power purchase agreement, to supply the electricity demand, it would immediately reduce emissions.

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The researchers also compared the cost savings of electrified systems over time. By 2030, they calculated that only heat pumps would cost less than conventional systems by 2030, based on “assumed energy prices” in the three countries. For the three other technologies, the energy savings were not enough to outweigh the higher cost of electricity. In all four cases, the paper determined electrified technology would cost less than conventional systems by 2050. Researchers noted that “in the best case” declines in renewable energy prices and increases in fossil fuel prices could outpace current expectations.

The Outdoor Industry Association and five members of the OIA Climate Action Corps—Burton, New Balance, Patagonia, REI Co-op and Gore’s Fabrics Division—commissioned the research and the industrial decarbonization consulting firm Global Efficiency Intelligence conducted the study.

“Our study demonstrates how there is an opportunity to decarbonize thermal heating processes in apparel and textile factories in a way that reduces emissions, energy, and cost over time,” Sarah Rykal, senior manager of OIA’s Climate Action Corps, said in a statement. “This is the first research of its kind, and we are thrilled to now be sharing these findings with suppliers in China, Japan, and Taiwan to help increase sustainability on a broader scale. These results impact the entire fashion industry, not just the outdoor industry.”

The 63-page report, published under the title “Electrification of Heating in the Textile Industry: A Techno-Economic Analysis for China, Japan, and Taiwan,” offers six recommendations that the textile industry, policymakers and others can take to scale up electrification and accelerate emissions reductions.

The report gives “top priority” to increasing renewable electricity generation capacity and the decarbonization of the electric grid so that emission reductions  can “go hand in hand” with electrification initiatives. Governments, the researchers wrote, should consider financial incentives to reduce renewable energy costs and carbon taxes to increase the cost of fossil fuels. They also recommend the development of “a coherent power sector strategy” that considers the potential rapid increase in demand and competition for renewables and incentivizes the development of distributed renewable energy generation at industrial sites, as well as the central grid.

Apparel brands, the study adds, can work with their suppliers to increase investment in both on- and offsite renewable energy generation projects and collaborate with industry groups to communicate to governments and power utilities private sector demand for increased access to renewable electricity supply.

“Our global supply chain is the source of most of our carbon emissions, so we must work with factory partners to transform how we make products and reduce the harm done in our name,” Kim Drenner, head of supply chain environmental impact at Patagonia, said in a statement. “We joined REI, New Balance, Gore, and Burton to collaborate with the OIA on this study, so the researchers were able to cover a diverse range of factories and stakeholders. This research is a step forward because it provides tangible, cost-effective ways for suppliers and brands to end their reliance on fossil fuels. We look forward to helping implement these improvements.”

In addition to expanding the renewable energy market, the paper advises countries and brands do what they can to incentivize electrification. Governments should introduce tax incentives, reduce permitting costs and offer grants for switching to electric technologies, while apparel brands can likewise provide financial incentives to their textile suppliers to encourage electrification, the researchers wrote.

The study also highlights the importance of education. “Many textile engineers, plant managers, apparel brands, financial community, and other important stakeholders are unaware of the potential for the electrification pathways featured in this report to reduce textile and apparel industry’s carbon emissions,” the paper’s authors said. Educational materials can play an important role in affecting policy and investment decisions that deliver “real” reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, they added.

“Electrification of process heating will play a vital role in the deep decarbonization of the textile industry and apparel supply chain when tied to renewable electricity,” Ali Hasanbeigi, research director at Global Efficiency Intelligence and lead researcher for the study, said in a statement. “However, it seems like not many managers and engineers in the textile and apparel companies are aware of this huge opportunity. There is certainly a need for more work in this area.”