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Facilitating “Industrial Symbiosis” for Rural Renewal

Christian Carvajal

Pacific County in southwest Washington surrounds, and is in many ways defined by, its most prominent geographic feature: Willapa Bay. This 260-square-mile natural estuary, the coast’s second largest after San Francisco Bay, yields about a quarter of the nation’s oyster supply. The adjacent cities of South Bend and Raymond, with a combined population of 4,700, flank the Willapa River near its egress into the bay.

In addition to seafood, timber’s been a key element of the region’s economy since its first sawmill opened in 1869. After decades of the timber industry’s decline, in 2017 Pacific County found itself with the state’s third-highest unemployment rate, only to see yet another sawmill close its doors.

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“We have to be adaptable in ways we haven’t even thought about yet. In one mental flip, [through industrial symbiosis] you’ve turned a complex industrial process with high energy use into a simpler process that might produce more value.”

JIM SAYCE

Manager at the
Port of Willapa Harbor

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) got involved in an exciting new way. Jim Sayce, manager of Port of Willapa Harbor, set up a series of meetings with DNR and CSI to discuss “industrial symbiosis” opportunities in the Willapa, including the creation of a groundbreaking “Energy Innovation District” where such symbioses would be supported. (Video of the proposed site is shown above.)

Asked to define industrial symbiosis, Sayce explains, “It’s a very old concept, but made new because of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure going to Denmark and looking at the Kalundborg plant. That’s a coal-fired energy plant, so you have lots of energy with excess heat. What do you do with the excess heat? Symbiosis is: Business A is in the production of something, and Business B goes, ‘Hey, I can use that waste heat to do something different.’”

Sayce offers the example of a sawmill creating small wooden pellets, which can be “used overseas to heat steam to make a turbine turn. We get lots of sawdust available locally, and you can turn that sawdust into wood waste, and you can make that wood waste into pellets. But then we need to put that in a giant rotary dryer the size of a freight car, and that takes x BTUs to dry the pellets. That takes energy, and how do you get that energy back? We thought we could take that energy and make it available to a mushroom or compost grower, a bioreactor, an algae farm ... What we discovered was we could produce a waste, but we weren’t sure of the currency of its delivery to another company that would live off that waste. It should be like parasitic mutualism, each benefiting from the other. We have a seafood-processing company here that takes waste seafood — could be the shrimp shell, the crab shell, the fish skin and remains — and renders it into fertilizer. If you’re a cannery you’ve got a lot of fish waste, and that’s hard to get rid of. Right now, because of the price of oil, petroleum-based fertilizers are getting more costly. That element-rich fertilizer is competitive in the marketplace.”

The "Reimagining the Willapa" team eating lunch at the Tokeland Hotel after touring points of interest in area. 

Pictured above: An early draft conceptual diagram illustrating potential EID symbiotic relationships and value capture.
 

Creating fertilizer generates odor, but the cannery was able to manage its waste by sharing odor-management operations with a cannabis-processing business next door. A similar give and take of waste into currency will drive industrial symbiosis in years to come, says Sayce. “We have to be adaptable in ways we haven’t even thought about yet.”

He believes “the key to symbiosis is having two parties that understand each other and the process and goal, because it’s somewhat abstract to many people. As a specific example, you can use waste heat to heat a greenhouse in the winter to grow a crop. Rick Tebb, the president of Tebb & Sons (the Port’s anchor tenant), called a friend of his who has a greenhouse, and he got interested. That dialogue is what gets you to the symbiotic level. You need partnerships to solve that. Well, now Tebb is thinking about its liquid-propane boiler. The cost of propane and natural gas is through the roof, so Tebb wants to go to a cold, dehumidification kiln. The goal isn’t to heat the wood, it’s to dry the wood. Turns out the cold kiln takes longer but produces a better product, less prone to warpage.” The only waste is distilled water vapor.

“In one mental flip,” says Sayce, “you’ve turned a complex industrial process with high energy use into a simpler process that might produce more value. Tebb incorporated symbiosis into its own business model, which is smart business practice: to use internal processes to capture value as opposed to shipping that to someone else. That’s an example of symbiosis occurring within one industry as opposed to between two. Businesses can internalize symbiosis.”

Sayce says CSI’s primary functions in this process were “identification of the wastes and networking between the parties to ask the further questions, ‘What waste is it, and how can it be manipulated?’ What we discovered was drilling down and figuring out transport, cost, and collection issues are hurdles. It’s not a plug-and-play technology. CSI’s sub-consultants could look at an energy system and propose an energy transport solution. We’re creating a huge Energy Innovation District (EID) here. When we build, we try to imagine the future. Can industrial symbiosis truly be cost-effective? I think it can. For people like me, the path is turning that into reality.”