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Going green with one of the giants of the West Kootenay forest

Mercer Celgar based near Castlegar is looking to becoming more than just another pulp mill. — Screenshot photo

The story of Mercer Celgar is a growing concern — in a good way.

One of the region’s largest employers is looking to spread its story about the work it is accomplishing in its West Kootenay-based operation — located at the bottom of the Arrow Lakes water system — in order to grow its green energy ideas.

The pulp mill is becoming more than just another mill, explained Bill MacPherson, Celgar managing director, as the 400-employee company works to transform its business from a pulp-primary, commodity business into a multi-product bio-refinery business “that is a global leader in innovative, environmentally friendly, bio-based products.”

Celgar is also an efficient mill, MacPherson said, with every tonne of pulp producing 1.5 megawatts of electricity through its bio-mass facility.

“Mercer Celgar has worked to emphasize generation of green electricity,” he said. “We are just making sure we are telling our story, which we don’t think we have done a very good job of, in all of our communities, to tell our story about why we matter to the people in ... the area.”

Which means out to the community and out to the business world. The company has expanded its operation to allow for bio-based products and is now looking to educate the market on what it offers.

“We could market and sell our electricity outside of the FortisBC and BC Hydro structure,” said MacPherson. “We are having conversations with people who might have an interest in reasonable levels of electricity. The challenge is we produce a lot of it.”

In 2010, Celgar completed the approximately $61-million Green Energy Project — which included the installation of a second turbine-generator with a design capacity of 48 megawatts — to increase the mill’s installed generating capacity to 100 megawatts, MacPherson explained, and upgraded the mill’s bark boiler and steam facilities. 

“At this time, Celgar also finalized a 10-year electricity purchase agreement (EPA) with BC Hydro under which it sells excess energy at ‘favourable’ green energy rates,” he said.

But there is not enough of a market yet to capitalize on the capability of the facility, he continued, which is what Celgar is currently working on.

“What has to happen before any of this can happen is we have to have the ability to sell that (excess) power,” MacPherson said.

The recent $125-million Celgar 550 investment is slated to have significant benefits not only for the mill but the entire region, MacPherson said, including providing over 50 new, high-paying forestry jobs and lowering CO2 emissions by 187,000 tonnes annually by using the wood waste that was previously burned.

Its second project — the biomass gasifier project — could be used as a replacement for natural gas, dramatically lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

If it is realized, Celgar could be the first pulp mill in North America to install an

industrial-scale gasifier, said MacPherson.

“A gasifier at Celgar could generate 1.2 million GJ of bio-gas, which is enough energy to heat 12,500 homes for a year,” he said.

A cut above

Mercer Celgar owns and operates the mill, located north of the city of Castlegar, with an annual pulp capacity of 520,000 ADMTs (air dried metric tonnes) and an electricity generation capacity of 100 MW.

The mill was originally constructed in 1964 and underwent an $850-million rebuild in 1993 to become a high-quality, continuous process pulp mill with modern power generation and environmental treatment facilities.

Mercer acquired the mill for $210 million in February 2005. 

Where will the fibre come from?

MacPherson said there are several misconceptions regarding fibre in the province, including the struggle for sawmills as they contend with a shortage of fibre for lumber production in the post pine beetle epidemic.

As well, forestry practices have always prioritized saw log harvesting, leaving up to one third of useable fibre either unharvested or burned in large waste piles.

MacPherson said one solution to this would be to target stands with high pulp fibre using new techniques to recover the wood from the waste piles.

“There is sufficient fibre to economically supply all pulp mills in B.C., including a substantial expansion of Celgar,” he said.

The improved forestry practices will achieve full forest utilization, create more productive forests that grow faster and reduce open air burning of waste piles.

That means a large reduction in CO2 emissions, dropping the risk of forest fires and improving the air quality in the region.

— Source: Mercer Celgar

The stages of growth

Stage 1

Celgar 550: Investment in storage tanks and process upgrades to stabilize the mill, resulting in additional pulp and electricity production, setting up the mill for future projects.

The project is considered shovel ready and is awaiting government support.

Stage 2

Biomass gasifier: Converting bark and other forest waste into renewable bio-gas to replace natural gas, resulting in enough energy production to heat 12,500 homes for one year.

The project is still in development, with preliminary engineering work completed.

Stage 3

Bio-materials plant: Numerous renewable bio-products could be manufactured at Celgar using bi-products of the existing pulp production process including: lignin; cellulose nano-fibres; and, compostable bio-plastics.

The project is in early development.

— Source: Mercer Celgar