One of the most significant energy efficiency projects in recent years is underway in the State of Washington, and it could set the stage for new growth in the U.S. paper industry. The largest paper mill in the U.S., Weyerheuser’s NORPAC plant in Longview, is getting a new system for pretreating wood chips that is expected to save the company 100 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.
The project is noteworthy not only for its sheer size, but also for demonstrating the potential that new conservation technologies have for generating new products and services. The full system is not entirely on line yet, but NORPAC (North Pacific Paper Corporation) is already using it to produce a new grade of paper.
Mining energy efficiency for new power
NORPAC is jointly owned by Weyerhaeuser and Japan’s Nippon Paper Industries. It is the single largest industrial consumer of electricity in Washington State, and it is a thirsty customer. By itself, it accounts for about 40 percent of the demand on the local utility, the Cowlitz County Public Utility District.
NORPAC has been the beneficiary of Washington’s rich hydropower resources, but with existing hydropower at or near its limits, under conventional practices the only way for NORPAC to grow would be for the utility to purchase additional power from other more costly sources.
New energy efficiency technologies essentially provide a new source of power at a lower cost, which benefits both the utility and NORPAC over the long run. NORPAC also stands to achieve immediate benefits from a sharp reduction in its annual electricity costs.
New cutting-edge energy efficiency technology
Paper making is a centuries-old craft that has evolved over time, but energy efficiency has not been a particularly critical part of that evolution. Now global competition and razor-thin margins give the edge to companies that can cut costs to the bone, and the spotlight is on energy consumption.
Preparing raw wood chips to be pulped is one energy-intensive first step in paper making, and this is the process addressed by new system. Called the Chip Pretreatment Interstage Screen Project, it involves two main components.
As described by writer Andre Stepankowsky of The Daily News, one component of NORPAC’s makeover is a new bleaching phase. That system has been completed, and it has enabled NORPAC to lower energy costs and reduce its use of bleaching chemicals to boot.
Despite the reduced use of chemicals, the new technology has resulted in a whiter, brighter grade of paper that NORPAC is already marketing as a new product under the name Norbrite 92.
The other component will provide the bulk of the energy savings. Still under construction, it consists of fine-meshed cylindrical screens made in Finland. When finished, it will shave about 15 percent off the amount of secondary grinding needed to fully pulp the wood chips.
Weyerhaeuser and sustainability
The new project apparently represents the first time these screens have been applied to a commercial installation of this scale, so the endeavor does involve some element of risk for Weyerhaeuser. The local utility and the Bonneville Power Administration provided significant financial support but Weyerhaeuser still took on $35 million in financing, out of a total of $60 million.
However, the risk is a calculated one given Weyerhaeuser’s growing track record on sustainability, which includes more than two dozen recent awards and recognitions.
Weyerhaeuser’s 2011 sustainability progress report covers 43 targets for 2020. Among other achievements, the company notes that it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 31 percent compared to a 2000 baseline, putting it on track to achieve its 2020 goal of a 40 percent reduction.
Water conservation, employee engagement and a green building program for the company’s homebuilding subsidiaries are some of the other highlights for 2011.
In addition to giving Weyerhaeuser a running start on its 2012 sustainability report, if the new NORPAC energy efficiency project delivers on its promises, it could be replicated at any number of paper mills in the U.S. and beyond.
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