Monday, April 30, 2007

Paper Mill - Biofuels, wind, solar eyed as viable options for Wisconsin

Interest in renewable energy on the rise

Biofuels, wind, solar eyed as viable options for Wisconsin

By Pete Bach
Post-Crescent staff writer

Wisconsin appears to be all about cultivating renewable energy sources.

A look around the region finds a Neenah paper mill among the leaders in the developing field, while an ethanol production plant is going full tilt west of Oshkosh.

Now the prospect that a northern Wisconsin paper mill might become the first fossil fuel independent facility of its type in North America is another step closer to reality.

These projects represent a mounting effort to develop alternate energy sources as Wisconsin strives for greater independence from oil and natural gas to power homes and industrial plants.

Gov. Jim Doyle has made the exploration of renewable energy one of his missions.

In early April, he announced his "25 by 25" initiative — a venture with a goal of garnering 25 percent of Wisconsin's electricity and 25 percent of the state's transportation fuels from renewable sources by 2025.

"The fact is, if an oilfield in Iran has to compete against a farm field in Wisconsin, that's a very good thing for the environment, for our economy and for the world," he said in announcing the initiative.

Going green

Lending new impetus to the conservation measures is new legislation sponsored by state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, that will require state utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015.

Spokesmen for Milwaukee-based We Energies, which supplies electricity to most of Outagamie County and parts of Calumet, Waupaca and Winnebago counties, said the utility is looking at a range of alternatives to go with existing options.

"We're just on the front end for meeting the new requirements," said Pat Keily, program manager for We Energies' renewable energy programs. "So there will be a lot of things that we'll be looking at and exploring. They'll be conducive to the diversification of our mix. We'll be looking at wind and solar and biomass."

A couple of We programs deal with customer-owned solar power arrangements.

"Solar photovoltaic is more conducive to customer owned, customer sited" systems, Keily said. "We purchase all the output at 22½ cents per kilowatt hour. And we feed that back into our Energy for Tomorrow program."

The Neenah Paper mill in Neenah has long participated in that program, and as of last September was still in the state lead having purchased 10.9 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy.

Meantime, We Energy's Solar Electric Development Program has drawn more than passing interest from area firms.

"There's at least three large customers in the Fox Valley that are pursuing this," said Randy Sabel, We Energies' principal account manager. "Two of them have done studies already and cost analysis and know what their facilities would accommodate. They have an idea of what the payback is. Now it's a matter of getting corporate approval to move forward with it."

The companies, which he did not identify, can apply for sizeable grants to partially defray the tab of new large solar electric systems.

Bio fuels

Utica Energy, an ethanol plant near Oshkosh that derives its product from corn, is expanding its range of Renew fueling stations and hopes to have a dozen open by Memorial Day.

The stations will provide the E85 mixture that can be used by specially equipped vehicles as well as the popular 10 percent ethanol/gas blends that are widely available.

"We're in our fourth year and it's going really well," said Jay Stoflet, director of marketing. "We produce 56 million gallons of ethanol a year."

The partners have invested in another ethanol plant going up in Jefferson in southern Wisconsin that'll have a capacity of 130 million gallons per year.

Valley paper makers are keeping close tabs on a state-of-the-art biorefinery planned at Flambeau River Papers, a Park Falls mill that makes book paper.

The biorefinery, carrying a $213 million pricetag, would make the mill among the first industrial plants to co-produce pulp and ethanol from wood. Up to 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually would be produced from the spent pulping liquor.

Harnessing the wind

A major project to tap the wind off Lake Winnebago's southeast shore to generate electricity is about to move forward in earnest.

We Energies' Blue Sky Green Field wind project in the towns of Calumet and Marshfield in northeast Fond du Lac County will generate 145 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 36,000 average homes. A total of 88 wind turbines will be installed.

The turbines, similar to the two that whirl along U.S. 41 south of Fond du Lac, are each capable of generating 1.65 megawatts.

Construction will get underway this summer and is expected to take a year to complete.

Reusing old mills

At the same time, the former Smart Papers mill — which reopened Aug. 9 under the new ownership of Butch Johnson of Hayward — is going full tilt making 400 tons daily of book paper.

Ben Thorp, a forest biorefinery expert that Johnson tapped to lead the planning, speaks with great confidence about the prospects despite a sharp disappointment. The project failed in its bid to land an $80 million grant from the Department of Energy.

"We were told we finished 9th of 44 and they only funded six," said Thorp. "We didn't get funded but we got very good feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. We're continuing to do engineering work. We're setting out to fix each and every one of the weaknesses, and that in itself is going to take several months."

In addition to selling 400 tons of paper a day, Flambeau River makes 150 tons a day of hardwood pulp. And they're buying more than 100 tons a day of pulp. What the project is going to do is add 500 tons a day of pulp to the mix, Thorp said, with the mill using about half that production. In addition, the design will produce 440 tons a day of lignin and 20 million gallons of ethanol from wood a year for which markets are readily available.

"Our outputs are all spoken for, presold," Thorp said.

Right now the mill consumes 1.2 trillion BTUs of fossil fuel.

The project would add either a second bark boiler or so called biomass gasifier.

"And that will replace the 1.2 trillion BTUs of natural gas and coal that they now use," Thorp said. "It'll make Flambeau River the first integrated pulp and paper mill in North America that's fossil fuel free."

Project planners were able to identify equity partners or individuals willing to provide the $140 million balance.

"Not winning that government grant set us back, but now we're looking at continuing on and getting additional private funding going forward," Johnson said. "As we do that, we're running more pulp trials."

Exploring alternatives

Abandoned paper mill sites would seem to provide a logical place for launching new ventures that make the most of emerging technology. That's the case some places.

But not in Neenah, where the empty hulk of the huge Glatfelter paper mill dominates the downtown in wake of the firm's shut down last June. The city is eyeing a more aesthetic future for the site.

"We feel the highest and best use of that property is retail and commercial," said Mayor George Scherck.

No comments: