Paper Mill Efficiency Measures Could Save Many Jobs

paperrollPulp and paper production has long been a major business in the Midwest, anchoring rural communities with jobs and revenue. But given that many of the mills are as old as a hundred years and handcuffed with antiquated technology, the industry has been vulnerable to competition. In the 1980s, a combination of natural-gas price spikes and low-cost foreign production led to the closing of several mills and the downsizing of others, resulting in the loss of some 100,000 jobs.


Until 2008, the U.S. was the world’s largest manufacturer of paper. That year China became number one. Domestic production today is still below 2000 levels.

However, now there is an opportunity to recoup some of those lost jobs.

Thirty-seven percent of American manufacturers with sales of $1 billion or greater are planning or considering moves to bring back some of their operations from China, provided they find favorable conditions here, according to a survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group. As many as 70 percent of those surveyed said that “sourcing in China is more costly than it looks on paper.”

This presents an opportunity to retrieve some of that lost paper production. But the economics will have to work. A key factor that could easily tip the scales is energy consumption.

Overall energy consumption in the manufacturing sector has been decreasing. During the period between 2002 and 2006, consumption dropped by 3.8 percent to 15,657 trillion BTU. Unfortunately, the reduction was largely attributed to the contraction of the sector due to slumping economic conditions. The largest segment, petroleum and coal production, actually increased its consumption by 6.25 percent, due to both increased output and the more energy-intensive operations associated with unconventional fuels, such as tar sands oil.

Paper production, which according to 2010 data, is the third-largest segment in terms of energy consumption, just below chemicals, accounts for 11 percent of the energy used by the entire manufacturing sector. An analysis performed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that paper producers, particularly in the Midwest, could reduce energy consumption by 25 percent on a per-unit output basis by using existing technology. The report found that this increase in energy efficiency could help these facilities compete globally while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The report states that the energy-inefficient Midwest mills (most of which are located in Wisconsin) could potentially save as much as $120 million annually by bringing their efficiency levels up to the national average. They could double those savings if they were to invest in upgrading their operations to Energy Star level, according to the report. In fact, doing so would reduce their carbon emissions even more than switching from coal to natural gas power. While fuel switching could provide a 19 percent reduction in GHG emissions, moving up to Energy Star efficiency could reduce them by as much as 34 percent.

Some of the recommended energy efficiency measures include:

  • A dryer management system — The most energy-intensive aspect of paper making is driving off the moisture. Enhancing or even eliminating the drying process can result in substantial savings.
  • Steam trap maintenance — Steam trap failures, which are quite common, can adversely impact energy performance. Regular replacement is a cost-effective measure. Addressing steam, water, and compressed air leaks can also reduce energy use.
  • High efficiency motors — Motor performance can be improved by as much as 20 to 30 percent.
  • Increased use of recycled paper — The use of recycled fiber rather than virgin content results in a 44 percent reduction in energy consumption. It also produces 50 percent less waste.
  • Extended nip (shoe) presses — Moisture can be removed from the pulp using a combination of heat and pressure. This type of pressure nip increases dwell time, which wrings out more water, reducing the amount of drying required. Think of a washing machine that spins the water out more thoroughly, thus reducing the work of the dryer.
  • Condebelt drying — Use of continuous contact with a hot steel conductive belt uses 5 to 15 percent less energy than conventional steam drying.
  • Dry sheet forming – This is a process in which the paper is formed without the addition of water that must later be removed. In this process, the fibers are suspended in air as resins are sprayed on them and then polymerized. Dry forming eliminates the need for drying altogether.

Most of these actions have already been employed by paper mills elsewhere in the U.S. Other emerging technologies could also drive improvements. Better utilization of the available biomass, for example, could make a difference. Gasification of the black liquor byproduct of the chemical pulping process could offset the use of fossil fuels. The use of biomass integrated gasification combined cycle (BIGCC) power generation could be applied here. And if carbon sequestration were to be applied, pulling carbon out of circulation, the overall process could become carbon negative.

Paper plants that have successfully invested in energy efficiency measures include:

  • Flambeau River Papers in Park Falls, Wis., after being shut down, reopened with new efficiency measures that reduced energy requirements by 15 percent.
  • Weyerhauser/ Nippon Paper plant in Port Angeles, Wash., invested $60 million in measures projected to save 100 million kWh per year.
  • Rock-Tenn in St. Paul, Minn., insulated steam and condensate lines, achieving savings of $171,000 year.
  • West Linn Paper in West Linn, Ore., invested $176,000 in efficiency and saved $379,000 in the first year.
  • Liberty Paper in Becker, Minn., invested $15 million in a water pretreatment plant and biogas generator.

recycledboxActor Woody Harrelson’s wheat-based Step Forward paper, which just recently announced a distribution agreement with Staples, could also provide a great opportunity for the Midwest, where much wheat is grown.

Another big area of opportunity is the use of combined heat and power (CHP) in paper making. CHP systems can squeeze as much as 75 to 90 percent of the energy out of almost any primary heat source. In paper making, this can be applied either as a conventional topping cycle, where heat coming off the power generation process can be utilized for drying or other purposes, or it can be used as a waste heat recovery process, where excess heat used in paper production can be captured and used to produce additional electricity. This video shows the use of CHP at a paper mill in Irvine, Scotland.

The WRI study also made a number of policy recommendations:

  • Benchmarking industrial energy efficiency performance.
  • Introduce minimum standards and incentives for those reaching higher levels.
  • Support the use of combined heat and power.
  • Promote collaboration between utilities and manufacturers.
  • Develop climate policy that integrates geography and industrial sector.

The Midwest paper situation truly reflects the choices now facing all energy-intensive manufacturers.  This study found that aggressively pursuing energy efficiency goals can save up to 350,000 jobs in this industry. New government policies and incentives could lower the hurdles associated with this kind of forward-looking action, making it an even easier choice.

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