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BusinessNorth Exclusives
Eco-industry project turns big heads

4/3/2006 by Wayne Nelson

Erik Monge jolted Wisconsin’s state bureaucracy in mid-February when he told the Superior Daily Telegram he plans to have a “waste to energy”plant with an estimated price tag between $64 million to $90 million perating on the city’s waterfront within 18 months.

In the 45 days since the vice president of operations at Elkhorn industries made his public pronouncement, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has moved the proposal to its front burner. Its northern regional office in Spooner is weighing a one-year experimental demonstration monitoring permit for the operation at the former Georgia-Pacific hardboard plant. Meanwhile, DNR Secretary P. Scott Hassett and Gov. James Doyle have taken personal interests in this first-of-its-kind eco-industrial project in Wisconsin.

“Eco-industry is very much aligned with the governor’s interests,” said John Gozdzialski, DNR’s northern region director in Spooner. “The agency is interested in this project because of its ‘green tier’ processes, renewable energy and recycling elements,” he said.

Green tier manufacturing uses waste materials as inputs in processes that reduce the impact on air and water quality. This breakneck pace of red tape-cutting reflects a desperate national search for eco-friendly energy alternatives as oil prices head towards $100 a barrel and evidence mounts that fossil fuel consumption is accelerating the pace of global warning. Elkhorn Industries proposes to build a network of “green tier” or “closed-loop” processes that will turn garbage into electricity and steam, produce hardboard and link adjacent manufacturers as suppliers and customers for each others’ end products and waste materials.

The Elkhorn Industries story began in 2003. Jeff Foster, chief executive of Jeff Foster Trucking in Superior, acquired the waterfront plant and 50-acre site where Georgia-Pacific had produced hardboard until it closed the operation in 2001. Initially, Foster planned to dismantle the machinery for scrap and use the property to expand his nearby trucking business.

But Monge, 42, a friend with 20 years of experience in the wood products sector, convinced Foster the plant had far higher potential use. Its obvious assets included the hardboard-making equipment Georgia-Pacific had left behind —including a mammoth press — a maritime dock and service provided by three railroads. But Monge noticed what others had missed: The mill has neighbors producing waste — from municipal garbage to paper mill sludge — paying to landfill it. He mused: Why not use those waste products as low- or no-cost inputs for new hardboard products, and to produce steam and electricity needed to make those products.

His outside the box venture took him to a bolder hypothesis. By incorporating existing “gasification” and “plasma gasification” technologies into the venture’s design, he reasoned Elkhorn Industries also can produce excess electricity for sale to Superior Water, Light & Power, ethanol to the nearby Murphy Oil refinery to make gasohol, methanol and hydrogen gas, as well. Heat and another byproduct in the gasification process, carbon dioxide — considered the No. 1 contributor to global warming — also would support a rooftop hydroponic greenhouse for growing fruit and vegetables.

That vision came as the Two Harbors native was pondering a career change from his job as a technical field representative for a Louisiana-Pacific chemical division that supported its global network of board mills. The division had been sold to Valspar Corp. and Foster hired Monge to develop the project. “It was time for me to get off the road,” Monge said.

The project Georgia-Pacific walked away from the hardboard mill in 2001 partly because of energy costs, which have since doubled. The principal piece of remaining equipment there is a large press that can produce 27 5-ft x 16-ft sheets of hardboard every five minutes, Monge said.

“It was costing them $5 million to $6 million a year for steam and electricity(along with wages and benefits for four boiler operators) to run the big press,” Monge said. “With more efficient technologies, and using feed stocks that we get a fee for taking instead of buying it, we can spin the boiler situation around to where it almost cash-flows,” he said. “With the (synthetic) syn-fuels and co-generated electricity produced in the process, we can run the plant, produce hardboard products and sell the excess energy,” he said.

In plasma gasification, waste fuel is fed to an oxygen-starved reactor vessel where an electrically-generated plasma produces temperatures of 20,000 degrees celsius. The waste breaks down into simple molecules, including hydrogen, carbon dioxide and monoxide, water vapor and methane. Most of the heat is recovered as steam by blowing these gases through a water “quench.”

Elkhorn Industries will use some of that steam in its hardboard process, and produce electricity by running the remaining steam through a turbine, and recover and clean the gases and compounds with commercial value. Ash and other remaining inorganic material in the waste will be reduced to an inert, obsidian-like volcanic glass,according to published scientific literature.

Laurel Sukup, DNR’s business sector specialist in the northern regional office, is leading the agency’s permitting process for the project. “We’re very excited to work with an industry and a company working withinnovative technology,” she said.

Any experimental permit issued only will regulate Elkhorn’s air emissions, she said. “We need more information before permits will be offered,” she said. “The regulations do give us discretion in working with companies, but this isn’t going to be just a board mill.”

Useful Links:

Northland Connection: Elkhorn Industries

Superior Days 2006 Issues