Pulp and Paper Canada

Power Play

April 1, 2009  By Pulp & Paper Canada

With cost cutting and environmental environ mental stewardship as two top boardroom concerns, discussions of energy ener sources and energy costs come up far more frequently that they did in the past.

With cost cutting and environmental environ mental stewardship as two top boardroom concerns, discussions of energy ener sources and energy costs come up far more frequently that they did in the past.

“Traditionally, electricity had been relatively inexpensive,” says Dennis Fitzgerald, a British Columbia-based private consultant to the pulp, paper, and utilities industries. Fitzgerald recently retired from a 32-year career with Catalyst Paper, most recently as director of energy. He explains that a lot of mills were built with hydro-electric facilities nearby, such as the Catalyst site at Powell River, B. C., located on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver on Powell Lake.


“That lake provides the water for turbines that have basically operated the mill for close to 100 years,” he notes. “Powell River was not hooked up to the grid, I think, until about the ’60s.”

While this may not be the case for all mills in Canada, the economic reality of energy costs – be it for electricity, natural gas, or others – has certainly changed over the years. As demand rises, so does the need for new energy supplies. And energy prices inevitably follow suit.

“I don’t think we have ever considered that energy was expensive in circumstances like those [at Powell River],” Fitzgerald says. “I think that’s the attitude we’ve come from.”

Gas From Biomass Replaces Gas At Kruger

In addition, the industry has suffered a succession of hard hits over the past years, so many mills are reluctant to invest in large-scale projects aimed at reducing energy use. Kruger Products Ltd. is an exception. The company is moving forward with a biomass gasification system at the Kruger tissue mill in New Westminster, B. C.

The gasification system, supplied by Nexterra Energy Corp., will turn locally-sourced wood residue into clean burning syngas, which will be fired directly into a boiler in place of natural gas. The installation, which is projected to start up in December 2009, will produce 40,000 lb./hr. of process steam, and displace about 445,000 GJ of natural gas per year.

Kruger’s vice-president of technology, Frank van Biesen, says installing this new system is part of their goal to improve the mill’s energy position.

“The first driver was really to get away from fossil fuels to an alternative. The easiest one that’s available to anyone these days is hog fuel,” says van Biesen. However, he adds that ordinary hog fuel burners have some negative sides to them, such as a significant amount of particulate emissions.

The gasification process uses about 20% to 30% of the oxygen needed for complete fuel combustion. The amount of air supplied to the gasifier is carefully controlled so only a small portion of the fuel burns completely. This process provides enough heat to pyrolyze and chemically break down the balance of the fuel into “syngas”, which is primarily made up of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane.

According to van Biesen, the primary benefit of this technology is a significant reduction in particulate emissions. “The second thing is that it affords greater flexibility in terms of fuel choice. You can burn drier wood; you could source construction waste that conventional hog fuel burners would not accept.”

In addition to making the mill less reliant on fossil fuels and reducing emissions, this biomass gasification installation – the first of its kind in the pulp and paper industry — is projected to save the New Westminster facility millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

“I’m happy to be part of a company that wants to do this,” van Biesen states.

Wait-and-see attitude prevails

Given that there are new technologies out there that can help mills produce their own energy and cut down on costs, why is it that more aren’t jumping on board?

“This industry is renowned, I’ll say, for its unwillingness to take risks and chances on new technology. As an industry, we’re very old school in terms of wanting to try something new,” van Biesen comments.

Dino Mili, vice-president of business development at biofuels developer Enerkem, echoes that sentiment: “The industry is not necessarily what you would call first movers. So there’s going to be more of a wait-and-see position from most of the larger companies to figure out how the technologies will affect them in terms of if the technology performs well, and then how will they be able to access the technology.” Enerkem has two notable projects in process now: a production plant in Westbury, Que., that will use wood from utility poles to produce ethanol, and a joint venture with Greenfield Ethanol that will see Edmonton become home to the first industrial-scale facility to produce ethanol from municipal solid waste. The ethanol is planned to go into fuel distribution to help Canada meet its 5% renewable fuel content requirement by 2010.

These projects may also have some significance in the pulp and paper industry. “We leave, sometimes, more in the forest than can be used. It can’t be used to make pulp and paper, but it can be used to make materials like biofuels,” says Mili.

Frank Dottori is the founder and former CEO of Tembec Inc. and current managing director of Greenfield Ethanol’s cellulosic ethanol division. He says using biomass to generate energy is something the pulp and paper industry should look at. However, there is an obstacle.

“Companies have to be in a position where they have the money to invest in these kinds of technologies,” says Dottori, adding that most companies today are fighting for survival. “There are good technologies available. They just need the support to get them going.”

He suggests that governments should get involved in helping one of Canada’s largest industries invest in biomass technologies.

“The government should really support that. It would help the pulp and paper industry, it would help sawmills, it would displace fossil fuels,” he says. “A lot of the infrastructure is there. It’s really a viable economic option. I don’t understand why the governments don’t make that a priority for the industry.”

Make conservation a priority

On a smaller scale, Dennis Fitzgerald notes that there are a few steps mills can take to be more energy efficient without investing a lot of money.

The first step is to measure and understand how energy is being used at the mill. Putting in a metering system, for example, can help to understand how energy is being consumed at the mill, and why changes occur. “If you don’t take steps in that direction, you probably can’t be very effective at reducing consumption,” he states.

Second, mills should also look at how energy is purchased and what options are available from their utilities and suppliers that may add value, which in turn can be passed back to the mill to reduce costs.

Next, Fitzgerald suggests the creation of a team made up of people from all mill areas and levels whose objective is to monitor consumption and spearhead process changes or other conservation measures to meet their collective energy goals.

“I think [energy] has to be given the priority it deserves,” Fitzgerald said, pointing out that many mills already take similar steps when it comes to mill safety and quality control. “It’s something that people should do on a day-in, day-out basis, just like every day they make sure their work areas are safe.”

While this industry may not be known as early adopters of technology, the momentum toward conservation of energy and investigation of alternative sources is building. Cheap, plentiful power is no longer taken for granted. Now, energy has become a topic of discussion at all levels of forest products companies -from the boardrooms to the mill floor.


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