Closing the Energy Circle

Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. is building the world's biggest wood pellet plant in the heart of the largest plantation-style pine forest in the world. Until U.S. legislation promoting biomass power catches up with directives in Europe, these pellets will be exported to a handful of European power companies.
By Ron Kotrba
Earlier this year in Massachusetts v. U.S. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that carbon dioxide vehicle emissions are subject to EPA regulation as a greenhouse gas (GHG). While the ruling was specific to vehicle emissions, it represents a milestone precedent from the highest court in the land, and judicial experts suggest it could lead to broader regulation of carbon emissions from power plants-the world's worst carbon offenders. "The main greenhouse gas emitters are those in the power industry, so that is a good place to start," says Olaf Roed, president and CEO of Green Circle Bio Energy Inc., a Florida-based company owned by JCE Group AB, of Sweden which owns the world's largest wood pellet plant now under construction in the Florida Panhandle. According to Roed, all global transportation sources on land and sea, and in the air, contribute 14 percent of all GHG emissions, leaving much of the remainder in the hands of the power-generation industry.

Fossil fuels represent a broken circle, Roed says with staunch conviction. "But biomass-biomass represents a closed circle." Some smaller power plants in Europe run on biomass exclusively, he adds. EU countries are required to generate power from renewable production under the renewable directive derived from GHG reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol. Widespread use of biomass in the United States to any significant degree is an unlikely scenario until federal restrictions on GHG emissions and incentives to boost renewable energy production are in play. Congress is expected to cover new ground this session as topics such as low-carbon fuel standards and carbon cap-and-trade systems are tossed around in the House and Senate. Most environmentally conscious people think it's about time. "It's all one planet and it doesn't matter whether the power plant is in China, Europe or the United States-it still goes out into the same atmosphere that we're all concerned about," Roed tells Biomass Magazine.

Pinpointing the Southeast
Construction of the Green Circle wood pelleting plant in Cottondale, Fla., 60 miles north of Panama City, began in February and initial production is targeted for December. The $65 million plant is scaled to produce 550,000 tons of wood pellets per year from regionally sourced pulp-quality southern yellow pine roundwood, which is produced in abundance in the fiber-rich southeastern United States. According to the Forest Nutrition Cooperative, more than 32 million acres of pine are grown in the southeastern United States. "The southeast United States has the largest plantation-style pine forest in the world," Roed says. With ample nearby feedstock this plant will produce enough wood pellets in a year to generate 2,400 gigawatt hours of electricity-that's more than 2.5 trillion watt hours. "The idea for this plant has been around for about two years," Roed says. "The concept is to supply the European power industry with our wood pellets." Green Circle looked at a world map and gauged global fiber supplies while also considering political stability and simple logistics chains. The result was a decision to build the plant in the Florida Panhandle.

In March, Jackson County received a $750,000 grant to help pay for Green Circle's water and sewer facilities in Cottondale. "The citizens of Jackson County are excited to have Green Circle Bio Energy break ground on the world's largest biomass pellet plant," Ted Lakey, Jackson County administrator, said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "We expect this plant to have a positive economic impact for the entire Florida Panhandle."

While much of the community response is positive, Roed says there are those who don't understand all the issues. "Like agriculture, if it's not cultivated it goes downhill. The virgin wood here has been gone for hundreds of years so we're talking replanted forests here," he says. "And when it's not maintained and cultivated-that, of course, is not good." The project site is near the Alabama-Georgia state line, an area of traditional roundwood surplus. According to 2005 data from the USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station, Alabama and Georgia respectively lead the South in total roundwood production. Booming development has led to a growing sawmill industry in the Sunshine State, but the older, larger sawmill timber is more difficult to harvest when the smaller pulpwood isn't thinned out. "If we were not here to buy the pulpwood, which is in lesser demand than the saw timber, it would be worse for the forest situation in the United States," he says. Even though Green Circle isn't purchasing wood quite yet, a number of landowners and logging crews will be part of the wood-pellet production plant's supply chain. "We're looking at between 10 and 20 different suppliers," Roed says.

The Plant
The pulp-quality roundwood will be delivered to the Green Circle facility on trucks, and as they enter the 225-acre site, the nearly 50 percent moisture-laden roundwood will be staged in the wood yard and pre-dried by the sun. The wood will be shifted onto the conveyer line where it will encounter the plant's de-barking system. The bark will be transported to a separate pile for eventual use as energy. The stripped round wood will move on to the chipper, after which it is piled. The bark will enter a building where it will be stored under shelter to keep dry until it is transported to its final destination in the furnace to provide the heat needed in the two, large, single-pass drying drums. The biomass-fired energy system comes by way of The Teaford Co. Inc., a Georgia-based company. As a supplementary furnace fuel to the bark, Green Circle also plans to purchase and integrate sawmill residues. Once the wood chips are dried they will be conveyed into a silo for temporary storage. From the silo, chips will be moved to the hammermill supplied by Switzerland-based Buhler AG, which will pulverize the wood chips into powder. Buhler is also supplying Green Circle with the heart of its operation-the pellet presses.

Two initial production lines at the Green Circle complex will utilize 13 Buhler pellet machines, giving this facility the single-largest wood pelleting capacity in the world at 550,000 tons of wood pellets per year. A similar 300,000-ton-per-year wood pelleting plant built in Denmark, which is also owned by Green Circle's parent company, JCE Group, holds that distinction until the Cottondale plant comes on line in December. According to Brian Williams, Buhler marketing manager, his company provided JCE Group's Denmark plant with its pellet mills as well. "We've supplied similar equipment to plants in Germany, Austria and Denmark," Williams tells Biomass Magazine. "This is absolutely a growing trend and we're proud of our involvement in this project." The pellet mills employ such high pressures that the wood flour becomes almost fluid for an instant as the molecular structure of the wood is altered and it's compacted for extrusion through the die plate. "The lignin in the wood itself acts as a glue when the pellets come out," Roed explains. "It's hard and in pellet form, and there are no chemicals or anything added to the product. No binder-no nothing-added."

After production, the pellets are loaded directly onto railcars serviced by Bay Line Railroad LLC, which moves from north to south, with a CSX Transportation Inc. rail line nearby, which moves from east to west. Loaded cars move directly to the Port of Panama City where they are placed onto cargo ships and exported to Europe. Roed says marketing negotiations are still underway but he expects to sell directly to a single-digit number of European power companies.

The southern yellow pine wood pellets will contain less than 1 percent bark, moisture content between 7 percent and 10 percent, ash content of approximately 0.5 percent, and an energy content of 4.8 megawatts per metric ton. They are cylindrically shaped, 8 millimeters (0.3 inches) in diameter and are a maximum of 32 millimeters (1.3 inches) long.

Green Circle also spent approximately $7 million in emissions equipment. Roed explains the rationale behind such a heavy investment, and what that money is purchasing. "Being a green company, it is important for us to keep a green profile," he says. "When you burn the bark you do have air emissions so we invested in a regenerative thermal oxidizer and a wet ESP system. What that gives us is, despite having the world's largest plant of its kind, we will be classified in the state of Florida as a minor emitter." Pollution control is being provided by A.H. Lundberg Associates Inc., based in Bellevue, Wash.

Once fully operational the plant will employ 45 people, who will run the plant in four shifts a day, 24 hours for seven days a week.

Maximizing Net Energy Gain, Future Plans
Considering the fossil fuels used to produce these wood pellets, Green Circle markets its pellets as possessing a net energy gain of 11 times that of the fossil fuels needed to produce them. "That's not typical of most wood pellets," Roed says. "What we're talking about here is the return on fossil fuel use. You can hardly do anything in this world without fossil fuels. So if we put in one unit of fossil fuels we get out 11 times that in renewable energy." Since typical wood pellets don't yield an 11-fold net energy gain compared with fossil fuels used, how does Green Circle's wood pellets achieve such good returns? "We use the bark to make the heat, which is the biggest drain on energy consumption we have in making these pellets," Roed says. "Also, we've set up a logistics chain that is large scale. You get economies of scale using only rail and ship (for outbound products). Outbound we have rail directly from the plant to the port, and then ocean service directly from there to the customers." Another aspect of the process adding to this astounding return involves the long-term power purchase agreement it has with West Florida Electric. "We're only buying renewable electricity from hydropower and from methane operations, to run air conditioning, electric motors and so on," Roed says.

There are about 40 pellet plants operating in the United States today with a combined production of 900,000 tons-competition Roed says his company needs. "This is an industry that needs to be developed," he says. "Pellets might not be a viable [U.S.] alternative if we were the only one."

Depending on the future direction of U.S. legislation, Green Circle may build additional plants similar to the Cottondale facility to supply the domestic power industry with a cofiring feedstock. "Europe of course has the trading system for emissions rights, and it's unsure yet what the U.S. federal government is going to do," Roed says. "We expect to see something, but the building of another Green Circle plant to produce pellets for U.S. power companies all depends on what measures are put in place and what solutions are selected. … We think that, eventually, cofiring wood pellets is one of the likely scenarios here in the United States."

Ron Kotrba is a Biomass Magazine senior staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 746-8385.