Pulp and paper mills’ energy efficiency improving

Jul 19, 2013

 By Jerry Schwartz
 Senior Director, Energy & Environmental Policy

 A study released this week by the World Resources Institute (WRI)
 suggests that Midwest pulp and paper mill energy efficiency could be
 improved, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions avoided, and money
 saved by making a few changes in technology and process.  We
 appreciate the study’s focus on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas
 reduction, as we have made improving purchased energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases two of the goals in our industry-wide Better Practices, Better Planet 2020 sustainability initiative.  Based on data collected from AF&PA members, pulp and paper mills in the Midwest have a similar profile as those across the nation.  From our perspective, the study’s suggested improvements are not as simple as reported.

AF&PA members are making significant progress on our Better Practices goals for purchased energy and GHG reductions.  In fact, we have already improved purchased energy efficiency by 8.1 percent and reduced GHG emissions by 10.5 percent, with goals to meet 10 and 15 percent respectively (and some members are doing even more).

The study concluded that if the Midwest mills achieved the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR top level of energy efficiency performance, they could reduce total purchased energy use by 30 percent and save approximately $240 million annually.  While we applaud the study’s focus on the energy efficiency of our industry and our members, it presumes several measures are readily-available. The study acknowledges that a few of its recommended measures can be expensive on a dollar-per-million-Btu-saved basis.   In our experience, some of these technologies are still not proven or widely used, and there are various trade-offs making implementation more complicated than portrayed.

Another recommendation in the study to improve energy efficiency is to increase the use of recovered fiber in mills.  We too share the desire to increase paper recovery for recycling, having set a Better Practices goal to exceed a 70 percent recovery rate.  Unfortunately, it is not feasible to draw broad, industry-wide conclusions about the life cycle impacts of increasing recovered fiber content in paper.  We cannot easily account for the benefits reaped by a recycle mill as a result of virgin fiber mills’ initial energy expenditure, and allocating the burdens and benefits of that expenditure between the mills is extremely complicated.  

As with other manufacturing sectors, the paper industry designs products to meet certain functional and aesthetic customer specifications.  Raw materials are chosen to meet those specifications based on quality, availability and price, and recovered fiber is used as a raw material based on meeting quality and performance characteristics of the final product.  The choice of fiber – whether virgin or recovered fiber – must strike a balance among quality, cost, functionality, and production performance for each grade and each facility.  Moreover, energy efficiency performance between mills often has nothing to do with whether a mill is using virgin or recovered fiber. 

Our industry is known for continuous improvement and innovation, and AF&PA members are committed to this through the Better Practices program.  Where improvements can be made, we will find a way.  But it is important to keep in mind that with any project in our industry, what works for one may not work for all, so generalizations can be misleading.