Sonoco goes green in big way

rburris@thestate.comJanuary 17, 2014 

— Sonoco unveiled what company officials said is the largest biomass boiler in South Carolina on Friday at its plant headquarters in Hartsville.

The two-year, $75 million project enables the international manufacturer to convert wood chips into steam power that is used to augment traditional carbon-based power sources that primarily fuel the plant.

The new boiler took the company more than two years to complete from conception, officials said, and is also primarily fueled by wood chips, which come from regional logging operations, though the boiler also can run on natural gas, the company said.

Sonoco CEO Jack Sanders said the biomass boiler will shave $6 million a year off the company’s power bill while producing 16 megawatts of “green power” for plant operations.

“It’s a significant investment but it reduces our energy costs because we’re not relying on fossil fuels like natural gas, and the cost of biomass waste is less than natural gas,” Sanders said.

Sonoco, a major employer in the Pee Dee region, hired more than 200 local contractors to build the facility and added 10 workers to operate it.

Completed late in 2013, the biomass boiler replaced four fossil-fueled boilers at the Hartsville plant, including two aging coal-fired boilers, a natural gas boiler, and one the used a combination of gas and oil, Sanders said, and represented a corporate decision critical to continued future operations in Hartsville.

The technology selected for the new boiler – biomass – also is among a lineup of non-carbon-based, renewable energy sources often touted by conservationists, though, unlike other forms of green energy, biomass plants do produce emissions. Some environmentalists also have expressed concerns that the increasing use of biomass boilers could lead to clear-cutting forests for fuel.

“After we made the decision Hartsville is where we wanted to make the investment, we really looked at several sources,” CEO Sanders said.

“We looked at natural gas as a possibility; we looked at replacing a coal-fired boiler with another coal-fired boiler; but when we did the evaluations, it all came back ‘biomass.’

“It’s the most sustainable option and the most cost-efficient option to actually generate power to run this facility. You have to generate steam to make paper, and our old boilers were at end of life. So, we had to either make a replacement or move production elsewhere in the country. We made the decision to keep production here.”

Founded in 1899, Sonoco, an international consumer packaging, recycling, and industrial manufacturer, is a member of the 2013/2014 Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.

The company invited state and local leaders to the plant for the unveiling Friday, including Gov. Nikki Haley, state and local lawmakers, Chamber of Commerce officials and others.

Wesley Blackwell, Darlington County Council chairman, who said he also had worked for Sonoco for 41 years, noted that company’s wages are 35 percent higher than average wages elsewhere in the state.

“(That) has helped so much in the quality of life in our community,” Blackwell said. “They have been good corporate citizens and they have certainly been our neighbors down the street.”

Haley said “innovative” biomass boilers like the one Sonoco built and installed are among the driving forces behind the state’s fast-growing economy, which has seen unemployment drop precipitously over the past year.

“Advancements like this help businesses grow and succeed, attract new customers and bring talent and high-paying jobs to our state,” Haley said in comments for the occasion. She also said Sonoco, because of its corporate profile, is a selling point for drawing other business to the Palmetto State.

Sonoco, which reported annual net sales last year of about $4.8 billion, employs nearly 20,000 workers in 34 countries.

“This is a jewel in the Pee Dee,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, whose Senate district includes Hartsville. “The Pee Dee has struggles in the rural area,” he said, taking the opportunity to remind Haley the region, which suffers historic, double-digit unemployment, needs more jobs.

Sanders, meanwhile, said every job produced at the Sonoco plant spins off nine other jobs elsewhere in the state.

“This is a developing technology, across the nation, and it’s actually used in Europe, so there’ll probably be other opportunities here to use biomass,” Sanders said.

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