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Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries
For more than 2 decades, a northern Alberta pulp mill has made a point of seeing the forest for the trees through its innovative delivery of green products.
When the Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) mill near Boyle opened its doors in 1993, it joined a new generation of pulp operations designed to meet the highest standards of environmental performance. Many of the products Canadians use daily – from fine-coated paper and packaging board to tissues and towels – are made from the pulp Al-Pac processes and whitens using elemental chlorine-free technology.
But it is Al-Pac's approach to clean energy that is ultimately helping the mill grow beyond the traditional markets of pulp and paper and into a number of emerging areas.
At the mill, located about 150 km north of Edmonton, bark and other waste left over from the pulping process is combusted in boilers, and the resulting steam is used to run three large turbines. The energy generated by these turbines is enough to meet all of the mill's needs while surplus power is sold to the province's electrical grid.
Geoff Clarke, a corporate planner for Al-Pac, said the mill can generate up to 98 megawatts of electricity every hour – enough to power the facility, as well as 17,000 households each year. Clarke said the savings realized by this steady, renewable source of energy is one of the key reasons the company has been able to branch out and explore the potential of new uses for forest waste.
"We are taking what would normally have been waste and turning it into useful processes," said Clarke. "We are creating less waste and developing new products and utilities that we would have had to purchase in the past."
One of those new products is biomethanol. The mill recently installed a purification system for removing sulfur compounds and other contaminants from the methanol that is processed from wood waste during the pulping process. When fully operational, a portion of the resulting biomethanol will be used in the pulp whitening process while the rest will be sold commercially for use in antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, biodiesel and other products. To Clarke's knowledge, the Boyle plant is the only pulp mill in the world that will be using this technology to produce commercial-grade biomethanol.
The company is also exploring applications for a substance called cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). Made from wood pulp, CNC is biodegradable and lighter and stronger than steel. It has many potential uses and could someday be used in products developed for the medical, automotive, oil and gas, and other sectors.
"We're constantly assessing new technology and emerging markets and looking at what our pulp mill is capable of producing," said Clarke. "When we find opportunities that are a good fit for our people, existing infrastructure, forest resources and skilled workforce, then we're going to be more likely to embrace them."
The Alberta government encourages innovation and projects that support environmental stewardship. Support from the Alberta and Canada Governments have helped to promote a successful clean energy venture.
"The provincial and federal government policies and support programs have allowed us to take on less risk, proceed with first-of-its-kind projects and get them working at the commercial level," said Clarke.
Beginning in 2006, Enerkem has searched for ways to transform solid household waste into biofuels on a commercial scale. Unlike the alchemists, however, Enerkem has actually found scientific success here in Alberta.
"I have seen firsthand tremendous support in Alberta for game-changing technologies that could have significant positive environmental impact worldwide," says David Lynch, Enerkem's general manager of research and development. "Alberta has been very progressive with greenhouse gas avoidance – a real champion."
Those years of painstaking research have resulted in the company's first full-scale commercial waste-to-biofuels plant, located at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. The plant opened June 4, 2014 and will convert 115,000 tonnes of waste to 38 million litres of bioethanol per year once it is in full production. The plant started making methanol in 2016, and in 2017 completed the installation of equipment to convert the methanol into higher-priced ethanol.
The bioethanol is blended with gasoline to meet biofuel requirements and, more importantly, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
"If you put that into a 5% blend with gasoline, that is enough to fuel 400,000 cars per year," says Lynch. "And it's just from garbage that was going to landfill, which is a pretty incredible evolution."
The plant will also produce biomethanol, which is used to make windshield washer fluid and possibly other products such as bioplastics.
Enerkem's technology fits with the City of Edmonton's efforts to find sustainable alternatives to landfill. The waste management centre currently diverts 60% of municipal waste from landfill by recycling and composting. Enerkem's operations will divert a further 30%. The hope is that eventually there will be no need to landfill garbage.
In addition to the partnership with the city, support from Alberta Innovates and Alberta Energy helped set up the game-changing Edmonton plant. Lynch says the support from the partners and the province's strong entrepreneurial spirit made Alberta the right choice for his company.
"Having the pioneering spirit and the willingness to try new things is a game-changer for a lot of companies," he says. "That's one thing that really differentiates Alberta and Edmonton from others. We've had a great experience starting off in Alberta. I would encourage any other investors or new companies to give it a try. Alberta's a great place to do business."
West Fraser Mills Ltd.
Wood is the world's oldest source of fuel and yet few people today associate it with the energy inside their homes. But as more pulp and paper companies look for ways to boost productivity and reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, energy from wood has been making a comeback. Across Alberta, thousands of people get their power from the surplus green energy that pulp mills in the province are generating from wood waste.
West Fraser Mills Ltd.'s mill in Hinton is among a growing number of companies in Alberta that sees the potential of bioenergy. For several decades, the mill has been relying less on natural gas and more on the sawdust, discarded branches and other waste that can be used to produce energy. The mill is now largely self-sufficient and all of the excess energy it produces goes to consumers on the province's electrical grid.
Dave Pors, energy and bioproducts manager at Hinton Pulp, said at a time when slumping demand for paper means many mills are fighting to stay open, cutting back on natural gas has improved the company's overall competitiveness and long-term outlook. It has also meant a brighter outlook for the 300 Hinton residents employed by the mill.
"The pulp industry has been faced with a lot of challenges because of dropping markets for paper. In order to keep the industry alive, we have had to take advantage of all the great wood fibre we have, and in Alberta, there's lots of it," said Pors. "By managing our forest resources sustainably, reducing our energy consumption and unlocking new possibilities from wood fibre, we are confident we'll be able to meet all of our needs – now and into the future."
The mill has 5 boilers where 2 byproducts of the pulping process, black liquor and hog fuel, are burned in order to recover cooking chemicals and to produce the steam used for process heating and to generate electricity for the mill. Black liquor is comprised mainly of a wood-derived substance called lignin, while hog fuel is made up of all the waste that is left over when bark is removed from trees.
Each year, Hinton Pulp produces almost 260,000 megawatt hours of electricity. This includes 11,000 megawatt hours of electricity for the grid – enough power for more than 1,500 households.
Upgrades to pulp mill equipment in 2010 and 2011 have enabled the mill to reduce its energy consumption by more than 314,000 gigajoules per year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 17,000 tonnes annually.
"Pulp mills have been green for years because they're able to take their waste products and create steam for heating and power," said Pors. "You can see that if we didn't have the ability to produce our own energy we would be burning up a lot of fossil fuels."
Pors is excited about another green initiative the mill is exploring. Traditionally, lignin – the natural glue that holds tree cells together – has been burned in the mill's boilers for power and heat. The Hinton mill is in the early stages of building a first-of-its-kind plant to recover lignin from the pulping process and use it as an alternative to the commercial glues found in products such as plywood, oriented strand board and laminated veneer lumber. As a natural adhesive, lignin does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as petroleum-based glues do, and has the potential to yield a good return.
The Alberta government encourages technological innovation and supports projects that raise the bar for environmental performance.
Lethbridge Biogas LP
A tanker truck rumbles along a southern Alberta road, its hold filled with rotten tomatoes, brown bananas, wilted flowers and other organic waste. Another truck strains under its load of manure – taken fresh from a dairy farmer's barn that morning.
For many, the sight – not to mention smell – of so much refuse would be stomach turning. But for Thane Hurlburt, President of Lethbridge Biogas LP who spearheaded a project to turn waste products into energy, the would-be rubbish is ripe with potential.
Lethbridge Biogas LP is one of a growing number of Alberta companies committed to developing greener and more sustainable forms of energy. Its processing facility, the largest biogas cogeneration project in Canada, on the outskirts of Lethbridge has the capacity to convert more than 100,000 tonnes of organic waste into 2.8 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2,800 homes – each year.
"Alberta is a respected world leader in fossil fuel production. With projects like Lethbridge Biogas, we can also be leaders in environmental stewardship," said Hurlburt. "This is good for all energy projects and energy production in Alberta."
The $30 million facility opened in December 2013 with funding from the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) and Alberta government.
At the heart of the Lethbridge operation are 3 state-of-the art anaerobic digesters, also known as fermentation tanks, which use bacteria to break down the waste that arrives by the truckload from local farmers and grocers. Inside the tanks, the biological cocktail of waste is constantly heated and stirred before it eventually produces biogas.
The biogas is collected in rubber bladders on top of the tanks and used as fuel to generate electricity.
The digested material, meanwhile, is collected from the tanks and loaded back onto trucks to be used as fertilizer by farmers. The nutritive quality of the manure remains while the ammonia smell is less pungent and closer to the odour of compost.
"Most of the farmers we work with are tickled to be involved," said Hurlburt.
Anaerobic digestion not only keeps organic waste out of landfills, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the way manure is stored – in tanks as opposed to fields – methane, a potent greenhouse gas given off by cattle, can't escape into the atmosphere. In fact, it's estimated the Lethbridge plant will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 224,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020.
Currently, Lethbridge Biogas LP uses manure, food waste, garden cuttings, cheese whey and other organic waste as feedstock for generating the biogas. However, the plant is already looking at ways to process other forms of waste, including animal carcasses through new technology developed by a company called BioRefinex.
Encouraged by its good start, Lethbridge Biogas LP is already looking at increasing its output of electricity to 4.2 megawatts as well as selling excess thermal energy to local industry. It is also exploring the possibility of developing fertilizer pellets for horticulture.
"The support for what we're doing is incredible," said Hurlburt. "Everyone goes that extra mile because they like it, they like where it's going and what we're trying to achieve."
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