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At Crane and Co., a greener greenback

At Crane and Co., a greener greenback

Posting in Energy

Massachusetts' Crane and Co. has been supplying paper for U.S. currency since 1879. A new trash-to-energy plant promises to make the greenback even greener.

Massachusetts firm Crane and Co. has been supplying paper for U.S. currency -- bills, specifically -- for the federal government since 1879.

In February, the company officially broke ground on a new facility in Dalton, Mass. that uses a process called pyrolysis to turn waste into energy. The company hopes the plant will help reduce its carbon footprint and boost its use of renewable energy; as a side benefit, it's also making the U.S. banknote -- a.k.a. the greenback -- even greener.

SmartPlanet spoke with Doug Crane, vice president of the family-owned company (and great-great-great-great grandson of founder Zenas Crane), to find out how renewables are impacting the company's operations. Plus, an explanation of the pyrolysis process from Honeywell UOP's Jim Rekoske.

SP: How did Crane get involved with renewable energy sources?

DC: Crane and Co. is a paper company, but we make all of our paper products essentially out of cotton fiber. We're really not tied in with the tree side of paper-making; we're really unusual in that regard.

One of our primary applications is U.S. currency. We've been making currency for the U.S. government since 1879. We were founded in 1801.

Here in Berkshire County, we're certainly among the top three energy users from the Western Massachusetts Electric Company. Currently, we have the benefit of a trash-to-energy plant established a few decades ago. And that's great -- we don't want to migrate from that solution.

We're really interested to see if we can come up with a renewable energy solution for our operations, but the caveat is we're not in the energy business, and we don't want to be. We just want to be able to purchase renewable energy.

A number of years ago we started looking pretty seriously at biomass. We need a lot of energy and we need it on-demand. When we start up a 400-horsepower motor in the middle of the night, you can't use solar panels for that.

I'm keenly interested in renewable energy. We started looking around and came across a group of folks that we had known from a former energy project. They had started a company called ReEnergy over in Albany [N.Y.]. That company had gained the rights to the technology where you can take an organic feedstock and turn it into liquid fuel. We have demand for both thermal energy as well as electricity. This fuel can be used to drive generators, much more efficient than the steam process.

We're looking to really do away with fossil fuels, in a lot of our operations within our existing infrastructure.

SP: Which is why you turned to [biomass specialist] Envergent.

DC: Envergent was really putting the finishing touches on the development side of bringing this forward. The timing was right for us to move ahead with the project.

The size of the original plant that we had looked at for the traditional biomass approach...we're now looking at something that's half the size. Fifty percent is intended to be used by Crane and Co. and the other half will be used by other businesses in Berkshire County.

We're taking our energy dollars and instead of purchasing electricity generated outside our state from fossil fuels, we're pouring our dollars into our local economy. It's kind of a labor-intensive process. It goes into labor dollars. It doesn't fluctuate up and down like crude oil prices. There's a tremendous follow-on effect.

SP: What's most important to Crane about going green? Operational savings? Environmental impact? Local leadership?

DC: I don't really think I can prioritize them, but from a dollar standpoint, the volatility for energy today is a real strain for us. Our business is geared on multi-year contracts for the U.S. government. At this point, we essentially have to guess what the price will be going forward. This will take the volatility down a notch or two.

The other aspect of having the government as your customer is that they're really encouraging suppliers to be responsible and look at their operations.

Crane and Co. is pretty well-known and respected around here, and known as a business that's in it for the long-haul. We're very mindful of our impact. We're also looking at reviving a smaller hydroelectric plant that will generate more energy. We're looking for multiple ways to solve the energy question and move toward a sustainable supply.

On top of that, we get a major portion of our thermal energy from a plant nearby, but that same plant takes care of the solid waste from the Berkshire County area. It's an important systems solution for the area.

Berkshire County is a beautiful place to live. The plant will provide landowners with economic incentive to keep open spaces open. Without this particular solution for our challenge, I'm not sure what we'd be doing.

The one thing we don't have is 15 of these plants across the country proving every detail. But doing new things is not something we're afraid of.

SP: And what of consumers? Do customers care if Crane's stationary has a reduced carbon footprint?

DC: Will it tip them over the edge because they know it's green? Most people know Crane and Co. because it's high-quality paper; for currency, it's long-lasting in circulation. They buy it for the attributes. But we want our employees to feel good about the company.

Since the government actually values these things, it does provide us with sort of a competitive angle on it to help us be a better supplier. It's meeting an additional need to the government. When someone steps up to the plate against us, they'll need to show their product and their renewable energy.

SP: A greener greenback, you could say.

DC: The greenback is amazingly green. It's an agricultural product to begin with, but it's a byproduct -- we reclaim fibers from the textile industry. It's recycled, really. It's really a very green product to begin with.

Now replacing the energy that goes into producing it? Well, geez, it's going to be one of the greenest products at the company.

SP: The dollar coin or the dollar bill: which one is greener?

DC: The coin will last for 30 years, but it takes more [energy] to produce -- you have to do mining to get the materials. On the other hand, dollar bills will last 18 or 22 months, but it's grown.

The life of a dollar bill is actually three and a half years. The cost of producing a dollar bill is four cents. The cost of producing a dollar coin is 25 cents.

HOW IT WORKS

SmartPlanet also spoke with Jim Rekoske of Honeywell UOP, one-half of the duo (EnSyn Technologies of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada is the other half) responsible for Envergent Technologies. Below, he explains how and why the pyrolysis process came to be used for the project.

Pyrolysis technology has been around for awhile, and [scientists] had been working on it for food additives: flavors and fragrances.

A distillation will get out the chemicals that carry that odor or flavor and take that to make flavorings or fragrances. A nice pine scent for detergent -- take this essence of pine. Smoked hickory for your bacon -- take this scent out of pyrolisized hickory wood.

The wood in the pyrolysis [process] comes out in this liquid -- pyrolysis oil. They were extracting the chemicals [for food additives] from it. The remainder they were simply giving away to whoever would take it. These things are generally located near saw mills or other timber sources. They would give it back to the pulp and paper mill and those guys would mix it back in with their black liquor.

We came to them and said hey, this is really neat technology but you can make renewable power on-demand with this. Just generating, taking the material, and giving it back to the guys who gave you the wood probably isn't the best way to deal with this. So we went through the technology and made it more robust. For fragrances, efficiency is not a big deal. In the power industry, it's a big deal.

We're going to make money by licensing the process and there are key pieces of equipment to make it work: it has to be in an inert atmosphere in the right conditions, 500 degrees Celsius in less than two seconds.

In petroleum refining, there's a technique called FCC -- fluid catalytic cracking -- that makes gasoline, predominantly. We had the knowledge on the process in-house and just switched it around for biomass.

We established the joint venture in November of 2008. We spent the first year understanding what we've got, and spent another six months finalizing the details. Really it's been an active eight or nine months of selling. It's getting pretty widespread adoption, and there are good reasons why: this is game-changing technology. You create a densified power source out of biomass, which is 50 percent water. You take that and densify it into a liquid with lower moisture content and higher density, which will reduce the cost of transportation. That's a significant benefit.

Often, where the energy resource is is far away from where you want to consume that resource. Shipping is always done on a per volume basis. Think of this as packaging for the industry.

We're pretty comfortable that this technology is able to produce electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. Firm electrical power. You can't do that with solar, you can't do that with wind. We really look at this as substantial technology -- technology that is economically manageable today without government handouts.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure