Greening the boiler and steam outsourcing market

Greening the boiler and steam outsourcing market

Associated Energy Services (AES) has at the heart of its values the need to add value through its activities. The focus being a partnership centric approach in delivering client industrial energy needs through an outsourced energy operation. This however, is simply the broader format of engagement through which AES seeks to be a value adding entity and participant in the greater economy.

In all of its activities there is a mind-set of continuous improvement and this carries through to its activities for investment in people, the community and the environment (macro and micro). In the case of the South African energy landscape, the fuel mix is such that fossil fuels, particularly coal, remains the most economically viable source of energy and is thus the energy source of choice for most industrial energy users. AES through its expertise and operation of client energy operations drives an efficiency based performance culture resulting in reduced fuel consumption, associated reduction in environmental impact and an economic advantage to its client partners.

However; the utilisation of alternative and renewable energy sources has always been a focus for AES in its activities and forms a cornerstone of its focus on energy mix differentiation throughout its business engagement. Since the cost of energy impacts significantly on the sustainability of client operations, the uptake of renewable energy in industrial process applications is generally driven by a client’s cost appetite to switch to generally more costly “green fuels” whilst managing the economic pressures facing production facilities in South Africa where extended factors such as cost of capital, administrative compliance requirements and slow consumer growth impact on the overall business economics.

In 2004, AES took over the management and operation of a biomass fuelled power station at a sawmill in the Tsitsikamma region. For almost ten years, AES focused on improvements at the site driving reduced specific fuel consumption and overall energy efficiency of the plant for the generation of industrial process steam and electricity from the water tube boilers and steam turbines. Although a by-product from the operation of its client’s sawmill, the wood waste (biomass) which was used as fuel was still viewed as a precious resource that should be optimised for energy generation. Additionally, every tonne of fuel that could be saved through more efficient operation reduced CO2 emissions for no value adding purpose.

AES additionally focused engineering and development resources to identifying suitable applications and opportunities for biomass in industrial energy applications. At the time the obvious application opportunity seemed to be the rising interest in cogeneration and specifically biomass / renewables based cogeneration. AES participated in the early Pilot National Cogeneration Programme (PNCP) and Medium Term Power Purchase Programme (MTPPP) with Eskom, but very soon found that the terms of engagement were not viable nor sustainable for small scale private cogeneration facilities.

Undeterred, AES has continued to engage various potential clients who have the interest and economic scale to warrant consideration of renewable based industrial energy plant for steam or steam and heat applications. Assessments and reviews have been done on technologies including gasification, pyrolysis, biodiesel production and novel combustion systems using energy sources including poultry litter, discard fish oil, wood, bamboo, producer gas from biomass and organic residues / waste streams from production processes. In almost all instances, the economic costs of the switch from established fuel sources (capex and opex related) has proved to be the point of failure for uptake of these projects. The cost to the business in the short term, has generally proven too much to enable economical achievement of a long term vision of sustainability.

The industrial energy market place has in the interim become increasingly interested in renewables for industrial process energy applications and certain organisations have planned to phase in renewable energy over a period of time to allow for the assimilation of the higher energy cost into their business models. One of AES’s client partners; Unilever, made a global commitment to phase out fossil based energy by 2030 and coal in particular by 2020. During AES’s management and operation of the Unilever steam generation plant at Maydon Wharf, AES was engaged to support Unilever in its activities seeking a biomass based steam generation solution for the site. Unilever through its extensive global activities had previously undertaken biomass based energy operations at a number of sites, however the unique characteristics of the South African context required local input.

Following Unilever’s selection of a suitable fuel source (wood biomass) and identification of a preferred equipment supplier, AES participated by providing commissioning support and oversight to the project, as well as undertaking skills transfer for operations and maintenance on the plant. AES has since been operating and managing the plant for the supply biomass based steam to Unilever. The new plant has significantly reduced the carbon footprint of Unilever’s Maydon Wharf operation and AES continues to support optimisation of the fuel and overall plant efficiencies to drive fuel usage reductions even further. The project is a shining example of a commitment by Unilever as an energy consumer to its sustainability agenda and environmental obligations, whilst being supported through AES’s local energy plant operations skills for the continued maintenance of plant efficiency and effectiveness in maximising the expected financial and environmental returns.

Another of AES’s client partners, Woodlands Dairy in Humansdorp, has been very active in the development of sustainable energy operations at its site. Following significant effort to get a biomass fired steam generation solution developed for the site, Woodlands Dairy managed to secure a combined fuel supply / technology solution that fitted their needs. AES was its operations and maintenance management partner for its existing steam generation facilities at the site already at the time that the biomass project was constructed. During this time, AES participated in support of Woodlands Dairy to ensure that the installed solution could be operated effectively and efficiently and to ensure a thorough transfer of engineering and operational know how. The plant has been in operation for almost one and a half years and is one of a number of “green solutions” invested in by Woodlands Dairy. Others include a water treatment facility generating biogas, which AES fires in a boiler for the generation and supply of steam to Woodlands Dairy’s process. Once again providing an example of the integration of business economic considerations with a sustainability agenda.

AES is proud to be a partner to Unilever and Woodlands Dairy in their ongoing support of sustainable energy generation whilst maximising business returns.

Dennis Williams is the current Commercial Director with over 14 years of service at AES, having been involved as a project engineer, new business development manager and marketing and commercial director in his tenure.