Drax Biomass' first vessel sails from Port of Baton Rouge

By Katie Fletcher | April 20, 2015

On April 7, the first vessel sailed away from Drax Biomass’ Baton Rouge port facilities to the Port of Tyne located on the U.K.’s East Coast. The MV TBC Princess was loaded with pellets from Drax Biomass’ southern pellet mills for power generation.

Drax Biomass spent about 15 months building the port facilities to handle and ship pellets from the company’s two 450,000 metric-ton-per-year plants; Amite BioEnergy in Gloster, Mississippi, and Morehouse BioEnergy in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, as well as pellets from suppliers other than Drax. These facilities have amounted to an overall investment of a $350 million for the company, and are expected to put 200 people to work by 2016.

The newly appointed president and CEO of Drax Biomass, Peter Madden, referred to the company’s current activity as drinking through a fire house. “We’ve got a lot going on,” Madden said. “We’re still in the commissioning phases of the two pellet mills, and that’s going well. We’re having the typical startup commissioning issues that most folks go through when starting up a brand new facility, but we’re certainly working through a lot of that.”

Madden added that the port facilities are still being commissioned as well, but with the first ship loaded, the company is excited about the progress. “What we’ve done, in essence, is develop a really efficient supply chain right from the forest to the overall power plant in the U.K.” Madden said. “Drax Biomass is going to be able to utilize the port facility to not only store our pellets, but also ship them out so we can burn less coal over in the U.K., reducing our carbon impact by 12 million tons a year.”

Two, large dome structures are located at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge with the capacity of holding 40,000 tons of pellets each in a dry, controlled environment. Right now, the facility has the capacity to support 2 million to 2.5 million tons of pellets a year, and could be expanded with a little more capital to support 3 million tons.

A load-out facility is also in place to pack the ships with cargo. The first ship that left earlier this month—a handy-max vessel equipped to handle about 25,000 metric tons of pellets—is expected to arrive at the Port of Tyne on April 25. Another “handy-size” vessel will probably be used at the port, around the end of May or beginning of June, for continued testing of the ship loading equipment before exports are moved to Panamax vessels—approximately 60,000 metric-ton-capacity ships.

The onsite storage facilities are in place to minimize demerge charges. “We’re going to expect about 450 deliveries per week at the port facilities, and so what we’ve also built is a high-capacity truck discharge system that can accept 10 trucks of pellets an hour, and it’s fully automated,” Madden said.

The Amite facility will transport its pellets by 25-ton trucks to the port, and the Morehouse facility will ship by rail. “What that helps us do is minimize the carbon footprint,” Madden said. “We want to make sure we are doing whatever we can in the supply chain to minimize that carbon footprint.”

Each rail car can hold about 90 tons of pellets, and according to Madden, Drax Biomass has 120 railcars on its continuous loop system set up with 80 railcar runs hauling 7,200 tons at a time.

Drax Biomass’ southern pellet plant are not expected to hit their nameplate capacities until the second half of this year. “We are commissioning Amite, and we’ve produced and shipped pellets out on the first ship,” Madden said. “Morehouse is running alongside Amite, as far as commissioning they’re about a month behind.”

Once these two facilities reach full capacity, Madden estimates that their combined pellet supply will compose roughly 15 percent of the power generation needs at Drax’s plant in the U.K. “We’re trying to increase the amount that we can rely on internally, but right now it actually turns into an optimization calculation—how to optimize the right amount of pellets by all the different pellet producers around the world, including Drax Biomass,” Madden said.

As for the company’s potential third Pike BioEnergy pellet plant in Magnolia, Mississippi, Madden could only say at this time that they’re continuing to evaluate that opportunity.

Madden said Drax Biomass has really appreciated the reception they’ve received in the south. He added that the abundance of fiber and the amount of wood-processing businesses, like pulp and paper mills, closing doors makes the company’s presence important.

Drax’s biomass supply coming from the U.S. was broken down in its biomass supply report issued in February. The report starts by indicating that a third of Drax’s capacity is now biomass. In 2013, biomass was generating 2.9 TWh, or 12 percent, and a year later reported 7.9 TWh, or 29 percent.

The report included a rundown of Drax’s diversification of its biomass supply. In 2013, 51 percent of its supply, or 619,045 metric tons, were received from the U.S. This compares to 2.38 million metric tons of biomass in 2014, composing 58 percent of Drax’s supply. Canada was the second largest supplier in 2014 with 882,758 metric tons.

The fiber coming from the U.S. was composed of sawdust, sawmill residues, forest residues, diseased wood and storm salvage, thinnings, long rotation forestry and agricultural residues (oats, peanut). Within the list, forest residues made up the highest fiber tonnage at 942,039 metric tons.

The report included that the forest growth in the southern states, which supply Drax forest growth substantially, exceeds harvest, with a net growth—total gross growth over a period minus the volume of wood in trees that have died during the period—of 306 million cubic meters (Mm3) and removals of 182 Mm3, resulting in a surplus of 124 Mm3.

Madden believes the effort of Drax Biomass in the South is supporting local communities and businesses, as well as loggers, haulers and land owners with healthier markets to sell their wood into. “We want to make sure that we’re certainly promoting sustainable forestry, but also strengthening the supply chain,” Madden said. “I think that is a pretty big opportunity for us to partner up with a lot of the land owners and the loggers and the haulers and our customers and make sure we’re doing it right in a very sustainable fashion. We’re looking forward to growing in the South.”