11 September 2020

The Swedish pulp and paper industry could significantly improve its competitiveness by linking innovation with savings in energy consumption. This is the conclusion of recently completed research project in which scientists at LiU have collaborated with colleagues at Chalmers University of Technology and RISE.

Picture from paper mill.
There doesn't have to be a conflict between innovation and energy reductions in the pulp and paper industry. On the contrary. The two fields can strenghten and develop each other.  baranozdemir

Transition with challenges

The transition to a more circular and biobased economy brings huge opportunities for companies in the pulp and paper industry. Paper board can replace plastic as packaging, energy products can bring new sources of income, and green chemicals and composites may become important alternatives to fossil-based products. These are just some examples.

At the same time, the development brings huge challenges since companies not only need to present new products but also satisfy ever-increasing demands for efficiency in the use of resources and energy. These demands are from government agencies, customers, and the companies themselves in the form of possible cost reductions.

Ksenia Onufrey and Maria Johansson.Ksenia Onufrey and Maria Johansson. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

The research project Interaktioner mellan affärs-, energi- och innovationsstrategier i massa- och pappersindustrin (“Interactions between strategies for business, energy and innovation in the pulp and paper industry”) has investigated how strategies in these regions can reinforce – or compete with – each other. The results are based on interviews with managers and personnel responsible for innovation and energy in eight Swedish pulp and paper companies.

“It’s a good mix of large and small companies, and this should give us an accurate picture of the industry. The differences between the companies are fairly large, and the different conditions they face may explain some of the differences we see”, say two of the researchers, Maria Johansson and Ksenia Onufrey.

Energy important in all cases

The part of the project that dealt with the energy needs of the companies showed that all eight were working with energy-efficiency measures, while seven of eight were working actively to increase the fraction of renewable energy in the total. Most of them, six of eight companies, had also introduced energy-management systems into their operations.

At the same time, some large differences between the companies were seen. Half of the companies were working actively to increase energy security, or, in other words, to become more self-sustaining in their energy sources. The others had instead given priority to developing new energy products for the market, such as electricity, district heating and biofuel.

“It is mainly the large companies that are working to develop new energy products, probably because they have the expertise and resources needed. A small company doesn’t have the same opportunities”, says Maria Johansson.

“At the same time, it appears that the companies must choose – either invest in internal energy security or develop products for an external market.”

Greater competitiveness

One important conclusion is that energy-efficiency measures are not something to be tolerated through clenched teeth, forced onto a company from outside, nor are they only a way to reduce costs. Properly applied, such measures can increase a company’s competitiveness. The increase arises not only from the opportunity to develop new energy products (or increase energy security), but also from the more attractive sustainability profile that the company acquires. The latter is becoming increasingly important.

The subproject that looked at innovations even found that the measures taken with respect to energy and the work with innovation are often intimately linked. All of the companies investigated during the project were working with process innovations that were intended to reduce emissions and the consumption of energy and other products. Many were also working with product innovations, such as biobased alternatives to traditional products.

In contrast, few companies were working with the most radical product and process innovations associated with energy efficiency (called by the researchers “clean technology”). This is probably because such an extensive technological conversion is very demanding.

“The companies are in different situations, and their ability to work with innovations differs. But everyone wants to use their existing resources in the best way”, says Ksenia Onufrey.

Important business case

“We recommend that the companies attempt to exploit the synergy effects between energy and innovation strategies. Increased energy efficiency becomes easier if openings for innovation are also present, and innovation projects can gain support if they are accompanied by energy benefits.”

There are, however, situations in which the different strategies can interfere with each other.

“In this case, the stronger business case will win out. If the company can earn money from the innovation, it will be given priority even if it leads to an increase in energy consumption”, says Ksenia Onufrey.

The research project started in May 2017 and has been financed by the Swedish Energy Agency. In addition to Maria Johansson and Ksenia Onufrey, Mikael Ottosson, LiU, Anna Bergek, Chalmers University of Technology, and Sarah Broberg, RISE, have worked on the project.

Translated by George Farrants


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