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Home » Industry News » Recycling & Waste Management » AES: A ‘paper trail’ of successful energy optimisation in SA’s pulp and paper sector

AES: A ‘paper trail’ of successful energy optimisation in SA’s pulp and paper sector

THERMAL energy plays a pivotal role in both the preparation of raw materials – and the pressing and drying of the fibre layers – which ultimately forms the 3,8-million tons of paper products produced in South Africa each year.

According to Dennis Williams, commercial director at Associated Energy Services (AES), one of South Africa’s leading operations and maintenance service providers to the steam and boiler sector, the R50-billion local pulp and paper industry faces exciting opportunities – but also some obstacles – as it seeks to boost competitiveness and contain costs.

“The sector has seen a lot of realignment in recent years. This includes the sale or closure of the less profitable pulp and paper plants – while the older ones are struggling to compete against more agile producers, which have already invested in newer technology,” Williams advises.

AES has worked with companies that process virgin and recycled paper, as well as everything from printing paper to cardboard, packaging and tissue. Williams points out that there is plenty of ‘low hanging fruit’ which can be harvested to improve production costs, efficiencies and boost producers’ bottom lines.

“With paper machines working at incredibly high speeds, processing hundreds of metres of paper or tissue per minute, steam usage needs to be accurately controlled, but also efficiently generated. A good quality, reliable steam supply not only minimises the risk of product not meeting specifications, but also ensures that machines do not have to slow down, adding to production costs.”

‘Out of the box’ sustainability

As it plays such a central role, energy is one of the largest input costs. Nevertheless, until now, many companies have invested in developing their production facilities and capabilities, rather than in steam generation efficiencies and optimisation. However, as a key energy user and environmental impactor – the paper and pulp sector needs to look more closely at sustainability, Williams maintains.

“The first step is resource conservation. Whether it is a kilolitre of water, a ton of coal or a gigajoule of gas, if less could be used – with the same outcome – that is a substantial ‘win’.
Primary facilities are also analysing how they can utilise bark or timber residues – or by-products from their process – to create energy – and many have innovative boiler plants. Efficient boiler operation is always a plus and will reduce emissions,” he explains.

In the South Durban Basin, for example, the close relationship between profitability and pollution control is very evident.

Another successful project for AES started with a steam plant at a packaging producer in Gauteng in 2007. Significant improvements in efficiency, steam supply quality and a boiler control system upgrade paved the way for AES to take over two steam plants at corrugated paper operations in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Ultimately, AES has operated five sites for this client.

Sustainability: a new page

AES has conducted many technology assessments in pursuit of sustainability in the pulp and paper sector. One such assessment examined the potential of using a by-product from the tissue production process – which was previously going to the local landfill as a fuel source.

“It is very high in moisture but includes fibre, so has energy value. Together with the manufacturer and a company from India, we examined this as a potential fuel source.”

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