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Week of 25 December 2023: Keeping the gas and electricity flowing to our mills this winter

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I am sure you have heard the story many times about how I lost all steam producing capability in a northeastern Ohio mill in the winter of 1987. It was early February and temperatures had plunged to -20 F. I was not at the mill at the time, but no difference, both the powerhouse and the maintenance departments reported to me. The powerhouse had four (count 'em 4) decrepit boiler feedwater pumps and was in the process of changing one of them out when we lost them all. Prior to my arrival the spring before, maintenance had been neglected all over the mill for decades. The team saved the mill from freezing up, saved the three coal fired boilers from burning up and we were up and running again within forty-eight hours. Six weeks later I was promoted to Mill Manager. I guess the higher ups thought I was too close to the details for safety. And here, back in February, I was sure I would be fired.

Then, you may remember a couple of years ago when Texas nearly froze up. By way of explanation, the creaky old power grid in the United States is broken into three sections--east, west and Texas. Hence the onerous burden on Texas. The grid crossings are called "seams" and there is not enough infrastructure at the seams (lines, transformers) to seamlessly transfer all the load one side might need from the other. So, in effect, they need to be largely treated as islands.

The Wall Street Journal, on 1 Dec 23 in an article titled "New York's Near Zombie Eclipse" described how New York City had a near total power failure last winter. They went on to say this was the fifth time in eleven years that cold weather jeopardized grid reliability in New York.

A portion of the problem was in the electrical grid, but a significant portion was also caused by low natural gas pressure due to natural gas distribution trains freezing up in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposit systems.

What does this mean for us in the pulp and paper industry? Offsite energy sources are becoming less reliable in the seasons of extreme temperatures (winter and summer). We can do the best we can to maintain our systems within the mill fence, but those links with the outside world are deteriorating when it comes to the reliability we require.

It is like I said in the column of 4 Dec 23 in this series, find a way to produce or control your own energy supplies if you want to be assured of your ability to operate.

The simplest way to do this is to install pressure vessels capable of storing up to a week's worth of natural gas and to derive your electricity from on site turbines. All expensive propositions but a set of calculation worth doing in order to make sure downtime is kept to manageable levels.

Be safe and we will talk next week (year).



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