Revitalizing Rubbertown

A biomass conversion in Louisville, Ky., will revamp a closed coal boiler house, saving and creating more than 350 jobs.
By Anna Austin | January 25, 2012

From fuel binders for space shuttle rocket boosters to brake pads and deck paint, products manufactured at the chemical complex in Louisville, Ky., are used in a wide variety of applications. Aptly dubbed “Rubbertown,” the area exploded with activity during World War II, when the U.S. Office of War Production contracted several companies in the complex for the production of synthetic rubber used to make tires for ongoing war efforts. Since then, ownership of the facility has changed hands several times, and it has continued to house a multitude of different chemical companies.

The area isn’t known for having an impeccable environmental footprint, but is switching gears, as a new biomass energy system will replace the complex’s coal-fired boiler house. Not only will it help lower emissions, but it has come to the rescue of the complex’s remaining tenants, ensuring their continued operations while preserving the jobs of hundreds of employees.

A multi-faceted partnership involving Kentucky state officials, Recast Energy Corp., Zeon Chemicals, and Lubrizol Corp. has made this developing project possible. Recast has impressed its partners with its ability to tip-toe around the existing companies, allowing them to continue operating while the conversion moves full-steam ahead.

Do or Die

Specialty elastomer manufacturer Zeon Chemicals has occupied the complex since 1989, and was joined by Lubrizol Corp., maker of latex and CPCV (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) resins, in 2004. They and two other companies remained in the complex in 2009, each owning a portion served by a single-utility boiler house operated by one of the companies.

In February of that year, Zeon and Lubrizol were notified that the chemical company that owned and operated the boiler and sold utilities to the other tenants was shutting down its operations there. “They had no interest in continuing to operate the boiler,” says Zeon Chemicals President and CEO Tom Gettelfinger. “So we were just kind of left high and dry. When they gave us notice, they basically said that within a year, we would have to figure out what we would do to get the steam we need to run our process.”

That couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the company, according to Gettelfinger. “We were in the midst of a severe recession that hit our business hard, so it was difficult to justify keeping our plant open by investing millions to set up a new boiler,” he says. “And it isn’t as if we would have been investing in process equipment that would generate more product.”

Taking over the boiler house wasn’t a fit for the remaining chemical companies either, so Zeon knew it would have to look elsewhere for help. In the same boat, Lubrizol joined the effort to find an alternative solution. “We had discussions with Recast a few years ago about supplying steam to our Mississippi plant, and so we knew they were already in the business,” Gettelfinger explains. “Since we wanted to focus on our particular product lines and not utility product, it was a good fit.”

Recast Energy currently operates cogeneration facilities in the Dominican Republic and Mississippi, and has several projects under development in other U.S. and Caribbean locations. The company began conducting feasibility studies for the conversion over the following year, and with the help of local and state officials, the companies involved were able to sign a deal in July 2010, according to Recast Energy Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Brandon Ogilvie. Since then, the project has been on a smooth and steady path to success.

Out With the Old

Sam Striegel, plant manager of Lubrizol’s Louisville location, explains that the boiler house purchased by Recast contained a coal-fired boiler that would be converted to biomass, as well as a natural gas boiler for back-up. That boiler is currently being operated, and an additional natural gas boiler has been rented as back-up. “As a result, we’ve been able to operate without any significant issues,” he says.

While it may have been easier to keep the natural gas-fired boiler, he says biomass was more appealing for a few reasons, one being its carbon emission reductions, and the other its more predictable price. “Coal and natural gas can be quite volatile, which creates significant swings in our energy costs,” Striegel says. “With biomass, while we will see steady increases in pricing, we expect the price of the fuel to be much more stable and predictable in the long run and at a lower cost than fossil fuels.”

Ogilvie emphasizes the complicated but beneficial nature of performing the retrofit around a live boiler house. “It’s not as though we were able to take two acres off the side, build the project, tie it in and turn it on,” he says. “We’re conducting it while the plant is live, while the water and steam pipes are hot.”

While some equipment will be upgraded, other equipment has to be gutted and replaced completely. “Coal and wood are both solid fuels, but there are significant differences in materials handling aspects and the combustion aspects,” Ogilvie says. “Coal is much more energy dense than wood; one pound of coal contains a lot more energy than one pound of wood. You have to put about three times the amount of wood through the system to generate the same amount of energy.”

Existing conveyor belts and fuel handling systems for coal are grossly undersized for wood, he adds. “We basically ripped out the entire fuel handling system.”

As the whole unit itself is being converted to burn biomass, major changes are primarily being made to the combustion system, modifications that will allow it to sustain a burn of 100 percent wood. “To burn coal, you need far less air than wood,” Ogilvie explains. “Wood has a lot more moisture in it, and therefore needs a lot more air to help drive it off.”

In addition, the ash handling system was replaced and two of the four original boilers were torn out, resulting in about one-third of the facility being demolished or moved out of the way to make room for new equipment. While these mechanical changes are a significant part of the conversion, there are a few other important components, one being securing new fuel sources.

More Project Pieces

The project is a different order of magnitude than a 50 MW power plant requiring 350,000 tons of fuel each year, Ogilvie points out, and even though it will only require around 75,000 tons per year of woody biomass, that feedstock is an important piece of the puzzle. “We’ve been working with local companies that have existing chipping and processing equipment, and companies that are hired to remove tree branches from power lines or to clean up storm debris,” he says. “There’s also some logging activity in the area that can provide tree tops, branches and other residuals, as well as some area sawmills. It will be predominantly residues.”

While most companies don’t have the cash to pay for conversions like this one, under Recast’s business model, the company pays for the project and owns it, selling the energy back to the companies under a long-term contract. The revenue generated from energy sales justifies the investment. Additionally, the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority has preliminarily approved Lubrizol and Zeon for tax incentives up to $1.75 million each through the Kentucky Reinvestment Act, a program designed to assist companies that need to make significant capital investment in Kentucky facilities in order to remain competitive and retain existing workforces.

Unfortunately, the project won’t qualify for any state renewable energy programs. “It’ll just be producing steam and not electric power, and incentives tend to focus on electricity,” Ogilvie points out.
While the plant isn’t generating electric power, it will provide all of the steam needed for the companies’ chemical manufacturing processes, heat the buildings during the cooler months, purify water, and provide other ancillary utility services. Recast is anticipating a commercial startup this month.

Finally, and perhaps most important, in a state that has a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, the project is preserving and creating more than 350 jobs, including Recast’s personnel on site and several dozen in the supply chain, aggregating and collecting the biomass. “We have the manufacturing facility here, but we also have our corporate headquarters, sales and marketing and research and development groups here,” Gettelfinger says. “It’s our biggest manufacturing location, and if we would have made the decision to shut the plant down, the direct jobs and all of the supported jobs would have been at risk. [The conversion] has assured us that we’re going to be here, and we’re happy campers again in this facility.”

Ogilvie points out that biomass conversions such as this one may be a solution for operations considering pathways to comply with the U.S. EPA’s Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) rules. “One option may be to switch to natural gas, but they might not have access to that,” he adds. “A solution like this, where we can come in and retrofit a coal or oil unit to biomass, is one of the possible solutions for those facing that issue.”

Author: Anna Austin
Associate Editor, Biomass Power & Thermal
(701) 751-2756
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