A Biomass Marathon

Protocol Biomass has a proposal that could serve as a model for shuttered pulp and paper mills.
By Lisa Gibson | April 29, 2011

In February 2009, Marathon Pulp Inc. closed its pulp and paper mill in the northern Ontario, Canada, community of Marathon. The closure cost about 250 jobs, but a majority of that workforce is in line for reemployment at a proposed biomass center that would occupy the same structure.

Protocol Biomass Corp., an affiliate of Protocol Energy International Inc., has plans to turn that shuttered mill into an involved and multifaceted biomass facility that would include a torrefied black pellet mill; a 17-megawatt power plant with added heat output for commercial users; and the Protocol Sustainable Bioeconomy Satellite Campus, a research and development operation. The cost will climb north of $100 million, according to Protocol.

All aspects of the project are scheduled for completion in 2012, starting with the pellet mill. Initially upon start-up in the first quarter, the mill will serve as a pilot facility and produce about 50,000 metric tons for testing in coal-fired power plants in Europe and Canada, according to Protocol Biomass Chairman and CEO Thomas Logan. “That’s where we’ll shake everything down,” he says. Successful pilot demonstrations will lead to a capacity of 300,000 to 600,000 metric tons of pellets in the third or fourth quarter of 2012. The cogeneration plant, subject to government approvals, should be operational in the fourth quarter of 2012, along with the research facility.

The project’s host facility was built in the 1940s, Logan says, and is in excellent shape. An interesting fact he adds, is that it’s the only paper mill in Canada that didn’t encounter work stoppage due to labor disputes. That wood savvy, competent and eager workforce is one of the main benefits of establishing the facility at the shuttered mill, he says. Other benefits include the reusable infrastructure and its proximity to a rich wood basket and excellent transportation infrastructure. In addition, the project has outstanding support from the community of Marathon and clear provincial support to salvage as many jobs as possible. “Our appetite is to bring back half of the workforce,” Logan says, adding that the figure maps well with the availability of employees because some are close to retirement.

When asked if Protocol’s strategy is a good model for other closed paper mills, Logan responded with a strong, “Absolutely.” He added that there is plenty of room at the forest industry table for biomass. “There are a number of closed not just pulp and paper mills, but sawmills,” he says. As long as there is a decent and underutilized wood basket nearby, any such facility could thrive as a woody biomass operation, he says.