William Makely

January 30, 2014

10 Min Read
Converters put Mother Nature to work

As the packaging industry and the customers it serves become more sensitive to the fragility of our environment and feel the responsibility to care for it, and as commercially-produced power sources experience increased demand, companies are turning to natural energy sources for the power they need. Renewable energy as a concept is not new, but our ways of finding and harnessing it are becoming more innovative. And today's widespread environmental awareness adds to the practical necessity of finding renewable resources the realization that the act of being a good environmental citizen has both a moral and a practical business value.

The "other" use of geothermal energy

Multifilm Packaging Corp. is a leading manufacturer of flexible packaging films used for candy and snack foods. The equipment used in extruding, printing, laminating and metallizing these films generates a great deal of heat, and has to be continuously cooled by chilled water. Multifilm for years accomplished this by circulating the cooling water through a large-capacity chiller that removed heat from the water and returned the cooled water to the machinery.

That process, driven by purchased electrical power, was expensive and the rooftop chiller was subject to both normal operating wear and the punishment of Illinois winters. It also used Freon as the principal coolant.

As the time to replace the 300-ton chiller approached, an alternative presented itself. While having a well drilled at his home, Multifilm's CEO Olle Mannertorp felt the coldness of the ground water and was told that it would remain at or close to that temperature year round. Could cold water from an underground aquifer be used to cool in the way that hot water from underground thermal sources is used to heat buildings?

"This was the opportunity," he points out, "to try something different that could make a substantial impact on both our energy consumption and our carbon footprint."

Multifilm contacted European consultant Clive Maidment, an expert in water and energy management, to help make the idea a reality. Maidment and Multifilm developed an outline of the company's needs and the system components that would be needed to meet them. As the design phase proceeded through successive iterations, the team realized more and more potential in the system.

"Besides replacing the chiller," says Multifilm COO David Rohrschneider, "we realized that we could also use this water to cool and heat the plant."

This is the aspect of the Multifilm system that is unique. Local utility company ComEd believes this is the first instance in the United States of a system used to both cool manufacturing processes and meet HVAC needs.

The operation of the system is very simple: water is drawn from wells on the Multifilm property at a constant temperature of 52° F. That water circulates to heat exchangers in the plant to cool water that in turn cools the machinery and also delivers cool water to the HVAC system. In winter, turning a valve instead directs warm water exiting the process machinery to the HVAC system to heat the building.

The ground water is returned to the aquifer through recharge wells at a temperature of approximately 68-deg F in the summer and close to freezing in the winter, making the average temperature of the rejected water 52-deg F. Because the water does not circulate directly through the machinery or HVAC system, it returns to the ground water source untouched, not having been in contact with the plant's processes.

Installation began in May 2009 with an exploratory well that found water at 280 ft with a potential flow rate of 400 gal/min. Drilling of the system wells needed followed, with three production wells to supply initial water at one end of Multifilm's property, and four recharge wells at the other end, so the two would not interfere with each other.

Maidment's expertise was critical in evaluating the aquifer and its use.

"This is a closed-loop system," he explains, "but how we extract and return its water is important. Water quality also needs to be checked closely, since sediment and the presence of substances like sulfur and iron will cause problems."

The cooling loops between the heat exchangers and the machines were completed in April 2010 and one-by-one the machines were disconnected from the chiller and connected to the geothermal system. A month later, the system was switched from manual- to automated-control mode, and has run in that mode since.

Initial estimates of the energy savings the system will deliver were 40 percent of total energy consumption and between 80 to 90 percent of energy used by the chiller.

"Preliminary numbers from July seem to indicate we are exceeding those estimates," says Mannertorp. Maintenance costs will also be significantly lower on the new system.

The cost of installing the system was roughly three times the cost of replacing the previous chiller. Close to 25 percent of that cost will be returned to Multifilm in grants from the U. S. Department of Energy, in addition to the ComEd grants. Through the lowered energy costs and lower maintenance costs, Multifilm estimates that the system's payback period will be about five years.

Integrating solar into a program

For more than 50 years, LPS Industries, based in Moonachie, NJ, has been manufacturing flexible packaging for items such as foods, medical tests and devices and electronic products. For many of those years, the company has also been committed to being a steward of the environment.

To reduce environmental impact of its many laminated film packages, for example, LPS some years ago switched from solvent-based lamination to solvent-free lamination, eliminating the use of dangerous chemicals and reduces energy and waste. It is continually expanding its portfolio of materials to include those that are recyclable, biodegradable or compostable. To save additional energy and serve customers faster, LPS created a national network of warehouses.

"We now produce and ship goods for the customers in a region to a nearby warehouse," says CEO Madeleine Robinson. "This minimizes truck travel and the emissions associated with it."

In addition, all of the LPS manufacturing equipment is relatively new and energy-efficient, and a few years ago, the company joined the EPA's Green Power partnership and replaced 25 percent of the fossil fuel-generated energy it used with wind-generated power. All of these energy-saving decisions are part of a corporate commitment to environmental protection.

The next LPS step in sustainability was on a larger scale: The 165,000 sq-ft flat roof on its manufacturing facility was as big as three football fields. How much energy could it yield if covered with solar panels?

Adapting solar design

LPS quickly discovered that traditional flat crystalline solar panels would not work. They would require heavy support brackets to stabilize them in the high wind area where the plant is located, the roof wouldn't carry the weight of the needed support structures, and they would require multiple roof penetrations, risking leakage. Instead, consultant Jamie Hahn, managing director of Solis Partners LLC, introduced the company to the ideal solution.

Solar collectors made by Solyndra Inc. are not flat crystalline panels but photovoltaic cylinders that not only weigh 50 percent less than panels delivering comparable energy, but are also installed about eight inches above the roof surface, allowing wind to pass beneath and around them, minimizing the chance of wind damage. They are certified stable for use in winds of up to 130 mph.

In addition, Hahn pointed out that installing a white ThermoPlastic Olefin (TPO) roof on the building would not only reduce cooling costs by as much as 20 percent but would also reflect sunlight to all sides of the cylinders, which are designed to collect direct, diffuse and reflected light.

The TPO roof also brought LPS an additional benefit. By installing solar panels, the company was eligible to apply for the government's 30 percent Federal Investment Tax Credit, but by installing Solyndra cylinders with the TPO roof, it could also include the new roof in its application. For a traditional installation, only the panels would have been eligible.

The roof also came with a 20-year warranty that includes both the roof and the solar collectors. If, after roof installation, damage occurred during solar system installation, both parts of the system would be covered.

The LPS installation is the largest Solyndra deployment in the U.S. to date. It consists of approximately 3,870 solar panels and is estimated to produce more than 825,000 kWh of electricity a year.

"This will provide 25 percent of our building's annual electricity usage," Robinson observes. "We were pleased to discover that the payback period is shorter than we initially anticipated. By adding this solar-generated power from our Solyndra installation to our existing 25 percent savings due to using wind-generated power, we have raised the amount of energy we use from renewable sources to one-half of our total need."

A crew of eight workers installed the solar system in just four weeks. Cylinders were stored nearby until needed and delivered to the roof each morning.

Says Robinson: "Installation went extremely smoothly; there was no disruption to our operations at all.

Blowing in the wind

Like LPS, other packaging companies have taken advantage of the availability of wind-generated electrical power, which is reportedly the fastest-growing energy source in the U.S. today, having approximately doubled its capacity in three years.

Unlike the solar and geothermal installations of LPS and Multifilm, which required significant capital investment, wind power generation users do not invest in onsite generation, but purchase power from producers. Curtis Packaging Corp. Sandy Hook, CT, a leading designer and printer of folding cartons, recently signed an agreement with supplier Community Energy Inc. to purchase clean, pollution free, renewable energy equal to 100 percent of its energy usage, 30 percent of which will be produced by locally generated wind power.

Part of the purchase is through the Connecticut Clean Energy Options Program, developed by the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC), the state agency responsible for regulating electric utilities. Participants in the program are the state's largest power companies, suppliers of wind power like Community Energy and various non-profits. The majority of the power purchased by Curtis, a total of 4,524,800 kilowatt-hours (kWhs) of renewable energy per year for the next three years, will be wind power.

Another major difference from the other renewable energy projects we examined is that, with wind power, cost savings is not the major driver. Wind power costs vary, and what may cost less than 5 cents/kWh in the northern plains states may cost 6-7 cents/kWh in New England. The federal government's Production Tax Credit, which provides a 2.1-cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) benefit for the first 10 years of a renewable energy facility's operation, makes the price competitive with new coal- or gas-fired power plants, but there is no distinct cost advantage of the magnitude of that experienced by Multifilm and LPS.

Citizenship advantage

The advantage to companies like Curtis Packaging is in being a concerned environmental citizen.

"We are confident that we are doing the right thing by reducing the impact on the environment without sacrificing the high quality products that our clients demand," says Don Droppo, Jr., Curtis Packaging Vice President of Sales and Marketing.

Olle Mannertorp of Multifilm and Madeleine Robinson of LPS Industries agree that, in addition to any cost advantage, their companies also feel strongly about the responsibility to reduce energy consumption and produce quality packaging products in the most sustainable manner.

All three companies have also found that there is a distinct marketing advantage in making the decision and telling their customers about it.

LPS CEO Robinson points out, for example, that the leader of a large pharmaceutical company they had pursued for years as a potential customer, after the solar installation was announced, sent her a letter congratulating LPS on being environmentally friendly and saying he would keep them in mind for future business.

Multifilm Packaging Corp.,
www.multifilm.com LPS Industries, 800/275-6577.

Curtis Packaging Corp., 203/426-5861.

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