The boiler at the heart of Georgia-Pacific’s Broadway mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, arrived by barge on the banks of the Fox River more than four years ago. Designed to replace the company’s largest coal-fired unit, the new natural-gas boiler has dramatically reduced emissions from the manufacturing process, and the surrounding community and environment are seeing the benefits.
“Ten years ago, we were operating a number of coal-fired boilers at several facilities,” said Traylor Champion, senior vice president of environmental affairs and product safety. “To continuously improve our facilities and the communities where we operate, we decided to convert or replace several of our coal-fired boilers to natural gas. That has significantly reduced sulfur dioxide emissions.”
Sulfur dioxide, or SO2, is a natural byproduct of burning coal, which was needed to produce energy in making everyday household products such as Angel Soft® tissue, Quilted Northern® tissue, and Sparkle® paper towels. Cross-discipline teams from operations, engineering, environmental, safety, and procurement working together at GP facilities across the country have driven a collective 59 percent reduction in SO2 emissions (nearly 30,000 tons) over the last 5 years, with goals for more reductions.
The Broadway mill is one of GP’s largest facilities and the largest of five facilities in Green Bay, with more than 1,000 employees. Between 2013 and 2017, a team at the Broadway mill set out to reduce its overall SO2 emissions. The results were dramatic. The Broadway mill reduced its SO2 footprint by 94 percent compared to a decade ago. These environmental improvements—driven by the employees’ collaboration, compliance with evolving regulations, knowledge sharing and problem solving—have benefited the facility and close-knit community.
“Clearly, Georgia-Pacific recognizes that it has a huge responsibility when it comes to managing its resources and making a positive impact,” said Mayor Jim Schmitt, City of Green Bay. “For a century, the Broadway mill and GP’s other facilities have been an economic driver for our community, and they’ve also been a good neighbor.”
Green Bay’s facilities have been recognized in the community and beyond for its environmental stewardship. The Broadway facility is the only recycled fiber mill in the world to be recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its ENERGY STAR® Challenge for Industry program. The Wildlife Habitat Council also awarded the facility its Conservation Certification, which recognizes efforts to create, restore and enhance wildlife habitats on company land.
“We consider it a privilege to operate within the community because the community exists all around us,” said Todd Cullen, who manages utilities operations at the Broadway mill and compliance for all five of GP's Green Bay facilities.
Working at the mill for more than 30 years, Cullen has seen a great deal of transformation in the community and the mill but perhaps nothing as impressive as the most recent projects that have reduced emissions and improved the overall energy efficiency.
Melissa Mrotek was part of the team driving these improvements. When Mrotek, manager of environmental mill services, started at the Broadway mill as a college student more than 20 years ago, she remembers a very different place.
“It's always changing. Every time you walk into the mill, it looks a little different,” Mrotek said.
“There's been a huge transformation in technology in terms of what our operating technicians do. Today, compared to what they would have done 10, 20, 30 years ago, is significantly different,” Cullen said.
Transformation at Georgia-Pacific is hardly limited to one facility – it’s continuous with no end in sight. This year at another facility in Naheola, Alabama, GP will eliminate coal burning entirely when it replaces two aging combination coal/biomass boilers with a newer unit that is more efficient at converting heat to energy and burns biomass only as its primary fuel. And at the mill in Muskogee, Oklahoma, SO2 emissions fell by 57 percent between 2014 and 2018 thanks to the shutdown of a coal boiler and replacement with natural gas.
“We were challenged to think differently and, given a variety of external factors, we asked ourselves, ‘Should we continue to invest in coal—especially in a very old coal boiler?’” Steve Landers, manager of environmental services at the Muskogee mill said. “We started looking at alternatives like gas, gas boilers or gas turbines, and we landed on this new gas boiler. That provided several benefits to our operations and the community, reducing quite a few emissions from not burning coal anymore and further fuel flexibility inside the mill.”
Challenges aside, Landers said building the new coal-free boiler was an exciting opportunity to do something different for the benefit of the facility and the community.
“We were pretty fired up about it,” said Landers, who characterized the project as all-hands-on-deck between engineering, environmental, safety, and procurement capabilities.
The feeling was mutual across teams, added environmental engineer Andrew Price, who also worked on the project.
“Making a change or improvement is always difficult,” Price said. “But, when you have a project like this, where we're all working in the same direction, and we're able to achieve something beneficial for everybody, that’s a win-win.”