A greener future – the Hinton Pulp story

    Looking beyond the trees into a circular economy
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.

Wide shot of the Hinton Pulp Facility courtesy West Fraser Mills Ltd.

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.

Photo courtesy of West Fraser Mills Ltd.

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 five boilers where two 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.

For more information, visit West Fraser Mills Ltd.