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The Final Word by Chuck Swann
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Way back in '64, before our current readers got their first jobs in this industry, folk singer Bob Dylan released a song entitled, "The Times, They Are a-Changin'." The song became an anthem of the modern era, often related to social and political change. And how does this anthem relate to the pulp and paper industry?

There aren't any people at work in pulp and paper mills today who were around when "wires" (forming fabrics) were actually made of bronze wire and lasted about two weeks. But anybody on the job in this industry today can, of a certainty, point to other rapid and far-reaching changes. The times in mills are constantly a-changin', both in terms of equipment--see twin-wire formers--and chemistry--see precipitated calcium carbonate. When introduced as innovations seemingly only a short time ago, both seemed great technical advances. Today, however, both are showing their age.

A coming change that seems to loom over the industry now is in energy--how we generate the steam that makes present-day papermaking possible and how we power the machines we use. Mills, of course, burn bark and black liquor as primary fuels, but many--if not most--have also relied on cheap-and-easy coal as a supplemental fuel. There are plenty of early warning signs that this traditional reliance is not going to fit the future. Coal is simply too polluting. So, what's next?

The answer would seem to be natural gas. It is plentiful and cheap. It is so plentiful in the oil patches today, that about 3.5% of the gas that comes out of the ground along with crude oil is simply burned, or "flared," on the spot. At today's prices, drillers don't consider it profitable to do anything with it other than burn it atop huge pipe torches jutting up here and there in the oil field. When the world needs it, the flares will be extinguished and the gas will be collected and pipelined.

All that's well and good, if your mill is near a gas pipeline. There are plenty of problems here for mills not on or near a gas pipeline. Can your mill tank-car or truck in enough compressed gas for its needs? And where would you hold those tank cars? A number of mills, notably in the State of Maine, have confronted the problems and worked through them. They are firing compressed gas brought in by rail or truck.

All this is not even to mention the considerable capital cost of rebuilding a boiler to fire gas instead of dirty ol' coal. A technological change to be hoped for is finding economical ways and means to clean up coal-burning (and the resulting ashes) by some kind of change in its preparation as a fuel and in the collection and disposition of its flue gases. The world simply cannot stop burning coal. That is an impossibility. But what can--and will--happen in developed countries is to clean up the burning of coal in ways we cannot now even imagine. The times surely are going to be a-changin'.

And what other changes are coming down the pike? One answer assuredly is wind and solar power. Mohawk Fine Papers took a look at this early on and, although not on or near a wind farm, has since 2003 purchased renewable energy credits, which fund wind power projects, to offset the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from its purchase of electricity and its gas-fired boilers. It has been good for business. In 2010, Mohawk's CEO Tom O'Connor said, "We have seen a tremendous economic benefit from this. The sales of several grades of our wind power-certified paper just skyrocketed. There are a lot of customers who like this certification. It is good for their marketing."

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.
 

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