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Energy Efficiency in the Pulp and Paper Industry

The pulp and paper industry is one of the most energy-intensive sectors of the EU. To improve energy efficiency the industry has invested in combined heat and power (CHP) generation and, in Europe, now produces almost half the electrical energy it consumes. Due to efficiency improvements over the last 20 years, direct CO2 emissions have decreased while pulp and paper production has increased. Potential breakthrough technologies now need to be tested to demonstrate market viability and increase efficiency even further.


State of the art

There are two main paths to producing pulp for the paper industry: from virgin wood or from recycled material. To make pulp from virgin wood, two main kinds of process are used – chemical and mechanical. In Europe, about 18 % of all mills produce both virgin pulp and paper on the same site. Integrated pulp and paper mills can be more efficient than stand-alone mills. Paper can also be made from recycled fibres. Europe has one of the highest recycling rates in the world (71.7 % in 2012). In paper and paperboard production, the global average for recovered paper used by mills was 56 % of total production in 2011, up from 46 % in 2000.

The pulp and paper industry is energy-intensive, with average energy costs around 16 % of production costs, and in some cases up to 30 %. Over half (55 %) of the energy used by the industry comes from biomass and most of the rest (38 %) from natural gas. Mechanical pulp making is usually more electricity-intensive and less heat-intensive than chemical pulping. As heat is produced in the pulp and paper making process, this can be used to generate electricity in combined heat and power (CHP) installations. In Europe, the industry produces about 46 % of the electricity it consumes.

Ongoing research

Although paper-making technology has developed significantly, improvements in the quality and strength of printing paper have also meant that some of the energy efficiency gains have been offset by higher energy requirements for producing these higher quality papers. Nevertheless – mainly because it already makes extensive use of biomass fuel and also recycles heat energy to generate power – the industry is in a unique position, both in terms of improving energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions. It could even become a clean energy supplier. This will mean replacing less efficient machines with new ones, which can be expensive. The prime candidates for improvement are the boilers, followed by the most energy-intensive part of paper production, the drying of the paper.


The main target for the industry is to make its technology more energy efficient.

There are several potential emerging and breakthrough technologies, although most are currently at a standstill. The bio-route aims to develop integrated bio-refinery complexes producing bio-pulp, bio-paper, bio-chemicals, biofuels, bioenergy and possibly bio- Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This route includes further development of the gasification of black liquor, which is an energy rich by-product from kraft pulp production. It is currently burned in a recovery boiler to produce electricity and steam for the pulp mill. However, it may be that the use of black liquor for the production of transportation fuels is a better option in economic terms.

After some initial attempts to introduce innovative drying technologies, R&D in this area seems to be at a standstill. Meanwhile, there is ongoing work, at the laboratory level, to optimise the mechanical production of pulp.

As the pulp and paper industry also produces energy, an important synergy in efforts to reduce CO2 emissions could be exploited by sharing innovation initiatives with the power sector or with any other (energy-intensive) manufacturing industry that could launch initiatives in the field of carbon capture and storage (e.g. the iron and steel industry or cement industry).

Since the mid-1990s, the sector has invested annually 6-8 % (around EUR 5 billion) of its annual revenue to improve its capacity. However, many companies focus their R&D investments mainly on new products, leaving most of the investment in R&D regarding technology and processes to a small number of specialised machine and equipment suppliers.


The economic crisis in 2009 hit the pulp and paper industry hard, even though a lot of restructuring work had already been carried out in the industry, which may have mitigated the impact of the crisis somewhat. The industry has partially recovered, but is not back to its pre-crisis level yet. A decline in production is forecast for some grades of paper, e.g. newsprint, which will not reach pre-crisis levels, but overall the sector is expected to keep growing at a steady pace, with new grades of paper developing. Where the sector will be in 2020, 2030 and 2050 will also largely depend on the export market and the competitiveness of the sector globally.


In the short- and long-term, the availability of raw materials (wood and recycled fibre) will be crucial for the pulp and paper industry. Currently, there is increasing pressure on the availability of biomass. The pulp and paper industry is competing with other bioenergy producers for their main virgin feedstock (wood). Almost 5 % of the EU gross energy demand is covered by biomass resources, while biomass accounted for almost two thirds (67.6 %) of all renewable primary energy consumption in 2010. At the same time, waste paper is exported on a large scale, mainly to China, where new large paper mills have been built. This leads to shortages in recycled fibres for some European paper producers. This is exacerbated by the relatively high cost of recycling and transporting fibres, when paper consumption is mainly centred on urban areas, whereas pulp and paper factories are usually close to forests, in rural areas.

Despite the high penetration of cogeneration in the pulp and paper industry, it is estimated that only 40 % of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) potential capacity has been installed in this industry. One of the main barriers to expansion is the ‘spread price’ – the difference between the price of the fuel used by the CHP and the price of the electricity generated. Priority grid access and dispatch for CHP electricity sold back to the national grid would lead to a quicker and wider implementation.

A lack of detailed and consolidated information about consumption and emissions of most of the pulp and paper technologies is a barrier in itself.


Large-scale demonstration plants could help the breakthrough technologies to show their market viability. Under the European Commission’s Sustainable Bio-refineries Call, the EU is co-funding four projects: Star-COLIBRI, SUPRABIO, EuroBioRef and BIOCORE for EUR 51.6 million from a total budget of EUR 79.1 million. Part of the support needed to develop the bio-route can be channelled through the European Industrial Bioenergy Initiative. However, the large investments needed to jump from pilot plant to full-scale application may require an additional push.


The European pulp and paper industry consists of about 800 companies producing pulp, paper and board, ranging from small and medium sized companies to large multi-nationals, totalling about 1,100 mills.

Sweden and Finland were the leading pulp producers in Europe in 2012, followed by Germany, with a share in total production of 31.4 %, 26.9 % and 7.4 %, respectively. Italy and Germany have the highest number of paper mills – around 170 mills each – followed by France (around 95 mills). Their production share in 2012 was 9.3 %, 24.6 % and 8.8 %, respectively. Other countries (such as Sweden and Finland), with a lower number of paper mills (around 40 each) have a higher share of the production, 12.4 % and 11.6 %, respectively. This is because a small number of new mills are able to account for most of the production. The most efficient 10 % of (wood-free) paper machines account for roughly 40 % of total production.

In 2012, 3.9 Mt of pulp was exported to non-CEPI countries and 7.8 Mt of pulp was imported. Paper exports and imports in 2012 amounted to 19.9 Mt and 5.2 Mt respectively.

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