The world of online digital media marches forward relentlessly, but many of us still prefer the feel and enjoyment of a good book in our hands, or a newspaper to while away a quiet moment. The death of paper, to borrow a phrase from American author Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, despite the digital revolution, paper and pulp businesses, which employ around 650,000 people in the European Union, have carved out new niches as the economy has evolved, demonstrating its resilience and diversification.
CEPI, a European association representing the paper industry, says that its members’ production of paper and pulp reached 90.2 million tonnes in 2021. According to CEPI, the confinements and restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic have accelerated a change in consumption patterns “and resulted in a growing demand for packaging grades of paper and board.”
The organisation also states that these changes, which are likely to refer to the huge upswing in online shopping and delivery that marked the most intense periods of the pandemic, “will have a long-lasting impact.” Production of packaging required for medicines and healthcare supplies also went into overdrive.
The sector is at the vanguard of resource efficiency, with millions of households across Europe required to separate and bag paper and cardboard for waste collectors.
It was among the first industries to take steps to reduce its impact on the environment through recycling, and it presents itself as an exemplar of the circular economy in action.
However, the paper and pulp industry’s continued viability relies on keeping costs in check and anticipating future developments. It’s an energy-intensive sector characterised by high capital costs and lengthy investment cycles, so producers need to know that their plants can operate seamlessly without delays and interruptions.
But in the era of energy transition, that is easier said than done. Although the paper and pulp sector has shaped initiatives to promote recycling and to reduce process emissions, it remains a heavy consumer of energy, especially natural gas.
The challenges in essence are twofold: the first is to maintain competitiveness in an era of escalating wholesale gas prices, which are hostage to wider geopolitical developments.
In April 2022, CEPI published a paper outlining ideas for ensuring security of energy supply and tackling high energy prices, lamenting steep rises in gas prices that had increased, in some cases, eightfold, a development that “endangers our industry’s existence in Europe.”
The second is to adjust to the impending era of decarbonisation, in which renewable sources of energy will become ever more prevalent in fuelling the industry’s operations. CEPI’s paper highlighted the current situation’s restraints on “the capacity to invest in further industrial transformation before 2030.”
Nevertheless, the paper and pulp industry prizes innovation and creativity, and some operators in the sector are actively looking to address these twin challenges to ensure its long-term viability.
UPM, a leading producer of graphic papers, is trialling a virtual battery model at one of its plants in Germany. The model aims to analyse and increase energy flexibility.
Effectively, the plant acts as a virtual battery for the local grid by storing a surplus of energy or feeding energy in times of energy shortage.
“To implement the virtual battery concept, the first step is to identify energy flexibility potentials in production planning and energy supply of a factory. At the same time, it is necessary to take into account the production targets of the factory”, says Dana Hellkamp from the Institute of Machine Tools and Production Technology at the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, which is assisting UPM in its endeavours.
“Manufacturing companies with high energy demands, such as paper mills, can contribute to grid stability as the volatility of renewable energies can be balanced out through further energy consumers and producers.
“In addition, the factories can reduce production costs through the flexible purchase of low-cost energy. This is because operating as a virtual battery, it is possible to adapt energy demand to the availability of low-cost energy from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind”, Dana says.
The trial at UPM is part of BAMBOO, an EU-funded project that’s developing options for resource efficiency and energy saving in four intensive industries, of which the paper and pulp industry is one.
Another of the project’s innovations is seeking to connect the energy sector with the industry, transport, and building sectors and then optimising them together – known as sector coupling.
“The idea is to create holistic solutions that consider interactions between these sectors”, says Dana.
“In the case of the virtual battery model, sector coupling comes with the strategy of electrification. This means, for example, that electricity is used to generate process heat by using power-to-heat units such as electro boilers or high-temperature heat pumps.
“This makes it possible to use electricity from renewable energies, such as wind and solar, to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Therefore, sector coupling can provide further strategies to enhance the flexibility of paper mills and extend the virtual battery model”, Dana adds.
These twin innovations being tested through the BAMBOO project reflect the paper and pulp industry’s determination proactively to seek solutions to challenges both urgent and long-term that manufacturers face.
Success would mean not only that the industry is able to secure its future as a leading European business sector, but that it will continue to set new standards of innovation and efficiency for others to follow in the circular-economy era.
By Stephen Jones