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What to do about energy costs


Energy costs have long been a major fraction of total mill operating costs and will continue to be, except for the more efficient kraft mills that live on black liquor and hog fuel. After OPEC was formed in the early 1970s, and also after each dramatic hike in oil prices, we’ve seen a rash of investments in energy conservation projects, and heard lots of buzz in industry conferences on energy. Taxpayers have subsidized many of the investments, particularly in Canada.

However, I have yet to see one of these money-saving, and hence, profit-generating campaigns being carried as far as it could be. In most cases, the limitation is tepid management interest. Technology or availability of capital are very rarely critical barriers.

Many proven, relatively inexpensive, and simple ways are available to improve mill profitability by reducing energy consumption, but few mills pursue them as aggressively as they should. One key problem is a lack of incentive for individuals to act, (despite pious statements such as “we like to operate the mill as well as possible”).

The program for this year’s TAPPI PEERS conference in Portland, Oregon, includes several papers on technically exotic measures for reducing fuel consumption in boilers and kilns. Some will surely be of value to at least some kraft mills, although I could find nothing in the program for other types of mills.

The focus in this year’s PEERS is on improving steam and power generation, with relatively little attention to reducing energy consumption. This has been normal for all the 40+ years that I have been attending such conferences.

When I have analyzed modern kraft mills overseas that run on black liquor only, or on liquor and hog fuel, while selling electricity, I have always observed that while they have excellent steam and power generating systems, their principal advantage over North American mills is that they consume much less energy in the manufacturing process.

Many of the possible measures for reducing energy consumption involve low-tech modifications that require only modest investment, or even none. Where investment is required, payback is often less than a year, so it is easily justified.

An excellent source of ideas, technology, and success stories can be found in the reports of the Energy Conservation Opportunities (ECO) competition, which has been run annually by PAPTAC (formerly CPPA Technical Section) for the past 30 years.

Each ECO competition entry refers to an actual mill project, is described on one page, and usually includes capital costs and annual savings. The authors and mills are identified, so it is usually easy to follow up on those of interest to check on details, long-term results, etc., before trying to implement the same measure in your own mill.

Most entries are by mill staff, and only a few are promotions for any particular gadget.

All ECO entries from 1981 through 2004 can be purchased in book form from PAPTAC in Montreal, Quebec (information is available at The entries are available in three volumes, costing CAD 90 total (less for PAPTAC members); volume 1 also can be found elsewhere on the Internet, but at a higher price.

In the ECO books you will find a few hundred effective energy conservation measures described. About 20% or so are probably applicable in your mill. When I ran the ECO program in the 1980s, and maintained the database, I observed that nearly half the measures taken in mills had zero capital cost, and the payback was less than a year for about half the remainder.

A quick look at current entries suggests that this is still true, and that all mills should buy the PAPTAC ECO books and have someone comb through them for applicable ideas.

In my experience, the greatest impediment to any mill profiting from these great ideas from other mills is that there is rarely any incentive for the key decision makers to make changes, while there are lots of people who resist change. In today’s understaffed mills, this problem is even worse than it used to be.

The simplest situation is where energy (or chemicals) can be saved by changing operating procedures, with no capital cost or equipment modification required. But it takes personal time and effort to persuade operators and supervisors to change procedures, which means many good ideas are never implemented. I have spoken with many of the authors of the Canadian ECO entries, but have never found one who got any reward beyond a “well done.”

I have been in only one mill that had an effective bonus scheme for operators who saved money with energy and chemical conservation ideas. When the cost of energy in a department was reduced by improved procedures, everyone received a bonus, which could be up to a few percent of annual salary. The originator got special treatment. The scheme worked well, but when a giant company took the mill over, the scheme was cancelled.

We need to motivate people to implement changes, and to encourage the resisters to think twice before saying “it cannot work” or “why bother.”

If anyone wishes to discuss a successful bonus scheme for saving mill operating costs, I would love to hear about it. I read my email at every day. If you would like to have your scheme described in this column, all the better.

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