May 12, 2021
8 min read

How the chemical industry can improve its climate footprint

Ingo Petz

Chemicals are vital to daily life, but their production has made the industry a big emitter of greenhouse gases. Evonik, one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals companies, shows how the industry can usher in a cleaner energy era.

Construction of the new fuel-flexible, 90-megawatt power plants is the first step in Evonik’s plan to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.


Since it was founded in 1938, the Marl Chemical Park, home to around 100 production plants, has been using coal to generate steam and electricity on-site for operations. But the era of coal will soon be history. Located in Germany’s Ruhr region, once known for heavy industry and coal mining, Marl’s energy-intensive production of around 4,000 chemical products will be made much more environmentally friendly and efficient through the turnkey construction of three modern 90-megawatt combined cycle power plants (CCPP) running on natural gas. Thanks to the new plants, up to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will be saved annually, equal to taking 500,000 cars off the road or planting 46 million large trees.

For one of Germany’s largest chemicals companies, Evonik, which operates the Marl Chemical Park, the project represents a leap into a new energy era. “The investment in the new plants are absolutely crucial to us,” says Stefan Haver, “as they mark the end of coal-fired power generation at Evonik.” Haver, as Head of Sustainability, is in charge of Evonik’s new climate and sustainability strategy 2020+: “One aspect of our sustainability road map 2020+ is to cut down our emissions by half until 2025 (using 2008 as a baseline), and combined heat and power production using natural gas will be a key component in achieving this goal.”

Andreas Steidle, Evonik’s Head of Energy Management, agrees: “A truly smart energy system is probably one of the most powerful levers for cost control, efficiency and sustainability – and that’s particularly true in the chemical industry.” He also adds that at Marl “natural gas can replace coal for a transitional period, but a defossilized and climate-neutral energy supply will be the next challenge.” Which is why the power plants use a fuel-flexible design that can be modified to operate with green hydrogen in the future. Evonik and Siemens Energy have already partnered together at Marl on a project to convert CO2 and water into specialty chemicals using electricity from renewable sources and bacteria – a project that will also include the production of green hydrogen. “A massive change has begun,” says Haver, who describes the part of this revolution in the chemical industry as a “revolution.”

Sustainability is a real growth driver with new areas of activity – and that’s giving the industry momentum.

Stefan Haver

Head of Sustainability, Evonik

Chemical production in the energy transition

With Covid-19 restrictions still in place, this revolution, for Thomas Hagen, Project Manager at Siemens Energy, is currently being televised. From his home office in Erlangen, Hagen needs only open his laptop to have a look at the progress of the huge construction site at Marl Chemical Park and get a glimpse into the future. As project manager, Hagen is pulling all the strings of this special construction project together. “In the past, a project like this would have stalled during a pandemic. Now, because of detailed planning and the very knowledgeable cooperation with Evonik, we’re moving forward with almost no losses or delays.”

On this particular morning, the gas and steam turbines have already been assembled, the boilers are in place, two smokestacks rise 56 meters into the air, and you can see pipes and lines everywhere. Plus, the blue façade of a new power plant is being attached. “We’re relatively advanced in the erection phase,” says Hagen, who studied electrical engineering and has worked at Siemens for 20 years. The instrumentation and controls system will also be installed and supplied by Siemens Energy from a site in Essen, less than 30 kilometers from Marl. “It’s further evidence of how closely we work with our customers,” says Hagen.

The power plants, to be completed by 2022, will have special heat recovery steam generators and catalysts that allow them to operate not only on natural gas, but also on regasified liquefied natural gas (LNG) or various other gases, such as the very residual gases from production processes. This raises their fuel efficiency to over 90 percent.

In addition, the plants will not only generate electricity, but also ensure the supply of up to 220 tons of process steam per hour and power plant unit. Around 2,000 households will be supplied with district heating from the site’s interconnected steam network. “The new power plants,” says Stefan Haver, “also give us the flexibility, important for chemical production in the energy transition, to compensate for load fluctuations in grids with a higher percentage of renewable energy. So, it’s an investment that’s going in exactly the right direction for us.”

Expanding fuel flexibility: The gas turbines powering the new plants at the Marl Chemical Park can run on a variety of fuels, including green hydrogen.

Leasing model as an optimal financing solution

In total, the companies based at the site will have invested more than €1 billion in the conversion of the Marl Chemical Park between 2019 and 2022. However, the new combined cycle power plant units being built by Siemens Energy will not be purchased as usual. Instead, Siemens Financial Services (SFS) has designed a customized lease financing solution in cooperation with Siemens Energy. “Evonik has clear ideas about the kinds of innovations and optimizations we want to invest in,” says Heiko Mennerich, Head of Evonik’s Energy & Utilities Business Line. “Investments in infrastructure are secondary here because we want to grow with innovations in specialty chemicals. Thus the leasing model is a good financing solution to meet our needs in that respect and to implement our future economic goals with a strong partner.” 

The end of an era: For more than 80 years, Marl has relied on coal for its power, but with the switch to natural gas Evonik will cut its carbon footprint by 1 million tons.

Electrification of the chemical industry

Although the chemical industry is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the industrial sector, the industry as a whole has managed to reduce emissions by 48 percent between 1990 and 2017 in Germany alone. “When it comes to climate change and climate mitigation,” says Stefan Haver, “we have to realize that the chemical industry is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Our products and solutions continue to contribute massively to efficiency gains in many other industries and technologies. For us, it’s now about turning value chains into loops and closing the carbon cycle. Today, rather than being unilaterally seen as a cost factor, sustainability is a real growth driver with new areas of activity – and that’s giving the industry momentum.”

The comprehensive modernization of the power plants at the chemical park is a model of the changes the industry can expect: including new power plants that guarantee security of supply; a more efficient, fully digitalized energy management system; and a test facility working on carbon-neutral feedstock for chemical production – in other words, the development of specialty chemicals that already have energy efficiency built in. With all these elements, the plant has a key function for Evonik. As Haver points out, "When you invest on such a scale as we are here at Marl, the crucial question becomes: How do you get the most for your money? How do you get crucial added value for every euro you put in?” He reflects for a moment before answering: “Marl has the advantage that the investment is visible in the ecological assessments of many of our products and we pass it on directly to the customer.”

At present, Evonik is considering which specialty chemical products are relevant for reducing emissions and how they can be optimized to help customers achieve their own sustainability goals. The keyword is electrification of the chemical industry. In the future, alternative sources of energy and raw materials based, for example, on artificial photosynthesis could be used to produce chemical products. While this process will be carbon-free, it is highly energy-intensive. Which in turn means that sustainable innovation not only requires funding, it also massively fuels the demand for electricity.

According to a 2019 study by the German Chemical Industry Association (Verband der Chemischen Industrie), these new, electricity-based processes will increase the electricity demand of the German chemical industry to 685 terawatt-hours per year from the mid-2030s, which is more than Germany’s entire electricity production in 2018. This means the chemical industry will need a continued partnership with specialists in all fields, including energy. “The challenges of the future are so complex,” says Haver, “that we would do well to rely even more on collaborations that take advantage of each player’s unique competencies – because that’s how we’ll achieve climate neutrality.”

May 12, 2021

Author and journalist Ingo Petz is based in Berlin, Germany, where he has written for some of the most prestigious publications in the German-speaking world, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Der Standard.

Combined picture and video credits: Siemens Energy, Evonik