Sonoco invests $75 million in biomass boilers

By Luke Geiver | December 22, 2011

Sonoco, a global packaging products provider that produces 1.2 million tons of uncoated recycled paperboard per year, has ended its three-year quest for sustainable energy production at its facility in Hartsville, S.C. The result is a $75 million biomass boiler retrofit.

The new biomass boiler, designed and installed by Atlanta-based McBurney Corp., will replace two existing coal-fired boilers, and produce roughly 16 MW to power the Hartsville facility. The project has the support of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and received economic help from the Darlington County Economic Development Partnership, led by executive director Robert Long. To qualify for U.S. DOE’s Section 1603 cash grant program, Sonoco worked with Long and other state and local officials to break ground this year on the new biomass plant, located adjacent to the Hartsville facility.

Although Long said the biomass retrofit project was unique, he added that Sonoco’s plan can be duplicated. “You have to have a company that has a sustainability commitment, and they have that. Sonoco is a great example,” Long said. That commitment became clear when the company declined a cheaper option to retrofit its power needs with a natural gas system. “The cheaper alternative was to do natural gas boilers, but given Sonoco’s commitment to sustainability, that was not the route they wanted to go,” he said.

Instead, the company has chosen to design, build and operate the entire biomass system in-house. Sonoco had previously looked to partner with outside groups on three separate occasions, Long said, but the company couldn’t find the relationships it was looking for.

The facility’s timber waste feedstock will be chipped at the harvest location and then trucked in to the plant. “The project will create at least 30 indirect jobs,” Long cited. Those jobs will primarily come from the trucking needs related to the project. Nearly 30 trucks could be needed, he said, five days a week making four to five runs to support the volume of steam the facility will require.

The increased truck traffic on specific biomass harvest and transport routes has also allowed Long to work with Sonoco to upgrade those roads. Sonoco will pay for nearly all of the $900,000 in improvements, but Darlington County has awarded the company certain income tax breaks to essentially pay for the road upgrades over time.

Jack Sanders, Sonoco president and chief operating officer, said his company is extremely excited about this project. The investment, totaling $100 million with the biomass boiler and other upgrades, is the largest Sonoco has ever made in the Hartsville facility, Sanders said. “In addition to maintaining viability of our operations and protecting hundreds of existing jobs, the project will create new growth opportunities and new jobs,” he said.

Gov. Haley said Sonoco’s investment demonstrates South Carolina’s ability to attract large investments. Sonoco not only worked with Haley’s office, but also with the South Carolina Department of Transportation to design the best route to get the transport trucks in and out of the new facility.

The project will continue for the next year, with construction slated for the end of 2012 or early 2013. An existing boiler that will not be replaced was installed in the early 90’s Long said, and that boiler can run on either coal or wood. The construction of the new facility housing the biomass boilers will create 200 non-permanent jobs and between 10-20 permanent jobs in addition to those needed for biomass logistics.

In his speech describing the reasoning behind the biomass project, Sanders said that in order to continue to operate the existing coal-fired boilers, the company would need to upgrade its control equipment for Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules. “We found that upgrading these old boilers would be very expensive and would actually increase our operating costs,” Sanders said. Once complete, the project will also reduce annual operating costs by roughly $14 million.