How high investments in energy efficiency saved the Westerkamp wood mill

Berlin “If we had worked with gas in the energy crisis year 2022, our company would probably not have survived economically,” says Ute Goossens. Goossens is the energy and environmental management officer at Holzmühle Westerkamp and has organized the company’s conversion to renewable energy.

In the years 2020 and 2021, the energy-intensive company invested heavily in increasing energy efficiency and in the use of biomass – in order to save in the long term. An investment that probably saved the company in view of the sharp rise in prices for electricity and gas last year.

In the wood mill Westerkamp, ​​a family business in the Oldenburg Münsterland that has been in existence for over 150 years, everything revolves around wood chips, sawdust and wood chips. The company processes them into wood flour, wood fibers and granules.

The range of application of the products is wide: The antibacterial wood granules are used as ecological bedding in poultry fattening, the wood flour is used as a filtration medium to separate fat, glucose or starch in the food industry and the wood fibers are used for the production of wood-plastic composites . From these, for example, decking boards are made.

A special feature is the processing of the wood flour into lignocellulose, which is used as roughage in animal nutrition. The range for the animal feed industry now includes 15 products that are protected by three patents.

In all cases, the starting material is fresh, untreated wood. It comes straight from the forest to the factory. It naturally has a water content of up to 55 percent. In this state it is unsuitable for further processing and must first be dried. This requires a lot of energy because the air used for drying has to be heated to 90 degrees Celsius and the chips are dried for 20 minutes to ensure feed and food safety.

When it comes to the provision of process heat, the savings potential is great

The provision of this process heat is an important ecological and economic factor in the company’s energy balance. This is typical for many industries – whether in the chemical, food industry or metal processing. The reduction in the use of energy to provide process heat thus represents an important lever for increasing energy efficiency and improving the CO2 balance.

The state contributed 700,000 euros

The state has been supporting investments to increase energy efficiency and improve the CO2 balance considerably for years. Both the state development bank KfW and the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA) have corresponding programs ready.

Westerkamp has made use of these offers: “It is very worthwhile to take advantage of these opportunities. However, I recommend getting energy advice on board, because the applications are quite complex,” says Goossens. “I want to encourage everyone to apply. The funding makes investments in climate protection and energy efficiency even more attractive.”

Westerkamp invested around three million euros and received almost 700,000 euros in public funding.

Other companies can learn from the “lighthouse project”.

The investments are not only good for the climate and for the balance sheet. In addition, they have brought Westerkamp nationwide attention: In 2022, the state German Energy Agency (Dena) named the project a “flagship project for CO2 savings in industry”. The jurors were of the opinion that the example of process heat at Westerkamp can be transferred to many other companies.

Historical mill

Mills don’t look like that anymore. The wood mill Westerkamp is considered a pioneer in sustainability.

(Photo: imago images/Ralph Peters)

For a long time, the wood mill used fossil fuels such as oil to operate the dryer. But since 2010, a biomass heating system has been in operation to generate heat, which is operated with wood chips. This system was replaced in 2021 by a new, more effective and lower-emission woodchip heating system.

Heat recovery as the key to greater efficiency

In order to further increase efficiency, the company has combined the system with a new belt dryer with innovative heat recovery technology. “Through this efficient drying method in connection with heat recovery, 35 percent less wood chips are used,” says Goossens. According to them, this combination saves around 3,800 tons of CO2 per year compared to oil. The new dryer is twice as efficient as its predecessor.

The planning phase lasted over a year, since the dryer was specially designed and optimized for the project in coordination with the manufacturers of the heating and the belt dryer. While the old plant without heat recovery was still in operation, construction of the new plant had already begun. It was finally put into operation in February 2021.

Further investments are planned

At Westerkamp, ​​there was still further potential for savings. Three compressors are used at the Visbek site to generate compressed air. Compressed air is by far the most expensive source of energy, as only five percent of the electricity used is converted into compressed air. 95 percent of the energy is released unused as heat.

So a heat recovery system was connected here. The heat obtained in this way replaces a pellet heating system, which was previously used to bring the office and social rooms up to temperature. In addition, the two old compressors were replaced by three new, more efficient ones, also with subsidies.

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In addition to higher energy efficiency, the new production plant also results in process improvements: investing in the dryer with heat recovery means that more tonnage can be dried in a shorter time. Better filter technology can also further improve the emission values.

And because everything is going so well and, above all, it pays off, Westerkamp wants to invest further at the Visbek site. “We plan to spend another five million euros and install another latest-generation biomass heating system and belt dryer in 2024 or 2025 to expand capacity,” says Goossens. “In this way, we are taking account of the increasing demand for sustainable products and want to continue pursuing our holistically sustainable approach from energy generation to the end product.”

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