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Bioenergy Pumps New Life into Pulp and Paper Mills

December 13, 2011 - 4:12pm

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Old Town Fuel and Fiber, a former pulp mill, converts a portion of the wood chips used to make pulp to biofuels. | Energy Department photo.

Old Town Fuel and Fiber, a former pulp mill, converts a portion of the wood chips used to make pulp to biofuels. | Energy Department photo.

Despite Americans’ voracious appetite for paper products -- a staggering 700 pounds per person annually -- America’s pulp and paper industry has been struggling as of late due to competition from countries where environmental standards are less stringent and labor rates are lower. To stem plant closings and retain American jobs, the Energy Department’s Biomass Program is helping the industry diversify by producing bio-based products such as biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

We started in Maine, which is the second leading paper-making state by volume, producing three million tons of pulp in 2009. Today, there are nine paper companies employing approximately 7,400 people with an average annual salary of over $63,000. However, due to the weak economy and overseas competition, the current industry is struggling to stay afloat.

The struggle of paper mills in this region is distilled in the story of Penobscot Chermical Fiber Company. In 1882, a saw mill in Old Town, Maine, began using its wood byproducts to produce fiber as a commercial product. This repurposing of the mill created a new venture which became the Penobscot Chemical Fiber Company, a staple of the community that produced pulp fiber and quality jobs for over 100 years.

However, in 2006 the economic pressures became too great and the last owner, Georgia-Pacific Corporation, officially shut down the mill – costing 400 workers their jobs in the process. But where many saw a dying industry, a small group of investors saw potential. That same year, they bought the mill and submitted a proposal to the Energy Department to convert a portion of the wood chips used to make pulp to biofuels. Its application was selected and since then the mill has reopened as Old Town Fuel and Fiber and 300 people were rehired. The management team has been working with us as part of the Biomass Program’s Integrated Biorefinery portfolio to re-purpose the site to produce fuel, fiber and other products.

This might seem like an isolated example, but the entire pulp and paper industry is well-positioned for this kind of bioenergy re-invention. They understand the technology to deconstruct wood, have an experienced and capable work force, and the biomass supply chain is already in place. Because the jobs are higher quality, they can also get support from state and local authorities. Many of these converted mills could be repurposed and commissioned within 12-15 months after approvals, saving jobs and providing economic opportunity across states such as Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.

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