From EPC to O&M

By Anna Simet | April 18, 2021

Prodesa has become an increasingly known name in the growing global wood pellet market, not only for executing projects from blueprint to nameplate capacity, but offering specialized operations and maintenance services unique to the industry. Forcus Martinez, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based Prodesa sales manager with 13 years of experience that includes participation in hundreds of pellet plant projects around the world, shares some perspective on O&M, personnel training and hitting production targets.

PMM: What is Prodesa’s role in the wood pellet industry?
FM: Prodesa is an engineering and manufacturing company that supplies wood pellet plants to our customers using a turnkey approach. We cover the full spectrum of the cycle—we’re normally engaged in the first stage of engineering, and then we work with the client throughout the process, defining the plant configuration, learning about the raw material and its characteristics like  it’s hardwood or softwood, whether the pellets will be shipped—all aspects of the project—and we use all of that information in the engineering process. When the customer is ready to kick off construction, we take care of that also—we build the plant, we go through the startup with our team, perform commissioning, and once we finish, there is a ramp-up process during which we reach nominal capacity. That’s typically when we transfer to the client.

PMM: What kind of expertise does Prodesa and its personnel have?
FM: We have been in the business for many years, and we are solely focused on pellet plants— that’s what we do, no other products. From our experience building many plants in the U.S., Canada and around the world, we have worked with many different raw materials and wood species in many different temperatures, which is very relevant—for example, Canada is cold, quite different than in the U.S. Southeast—and so we know that every project has totally different particularities. We’ve developed a very good understanding of what goes on in the pelleting process—for example, the raw material as it evolves and changes throughout the pelleting process—and our people have extensive knowledge of not only the equipment itself, but what happens in each stage of the process. This is very important when making pellets.

PMM: Prodesa offers pellet facilities operations and maintenance contracts—for those that your company built, and for those it did not. How did Prodesa pivot to providing that service, and how can facilities benefit?
FM: Some years ago, we realized that when we delivered the plant to customers, it wasn’t uncommon that a team wasn’t quite ready to take care of the plant. Some like to hire locally, and in those cases, their people often don’t have the expertise. A lot of times, we would be asked to stay for some time and ensure production continued at nominal capacity, for many different reasons. After internal discussions, we decided to offer O&M contracts, which provided an opportunity for us and our customers to work together for a long period of time to ensure sustained nominal capacity of the plant. And so that was the beginning of this type of contract, which we have been doing for the better part of the past decade.

Depending on the customer profile, they might want us there for support for three or four months, or even a year, having their own people and staff operating the plant, with ours playing more of an operations and maintenance supervising role to ensure things are going as they should. The client’s supervisors are being trained, but still doing the work. We have another option in which we have more intervention in operating the plant, and with this, we could be supplying the staff.

What are some of the most common reasons a pellet plant sees poor operational performance?
FM: This is a good question, but the answer is broad because it depends on what type of plant we’re talking about—first whether it’s a new plant or an old plant. There could be many different things preventing a plant from reaching nominal capacity from day one. It might be because of the process design—poorly done or not optimized—or it could be an equipment issue. There have been cases in the industry where new, large-scale plants have had to make major changes in equipment because they couldn’t reach nominal capacity. And it could also be raw material. You want to start building supply chains for raw material from day one to ensure its stable, and its quality is important.

Another reason might be related to logistics, something preventing the plant from being able to get its pellets to the market. And finally, very relevant is the training of the people. If they aren’t well trained from the beginning, it could cause big problems when you get into operation, especially with new plants.

With older plants, we tend to see more operational performance issues, and a lot of times it’s because of poor maintenance or attempts to save money, causing the plant to lose capabilities that it had at the beginning. We see this more at plants that have been in business for six, seven or 10 years, when they ask us to come on-site and do an inspection. We’ll find that things have sometimes not been maintained properly, and other times, the design was not optimum from the beginning. It really depends on the plant.

In the case study pictured along with this interview, you outline some different scenarios in terms of reaching capacity and payback. What’s the most common scenario?
FM: This is often influenced by what type of company it is—whether it’s  the first plant that it has built or if it has built many, and again, whether or not the team is well-trained or experienced people hired. If you are able to hire a good plant manager, sometimes that can totally change the situation.

Normally, unless you get into an O&M agreement, you’re not going to hit 100 percent of capacity consistently in the first year. That’s a reality. There are some cases in the industry where big plants, after a few years, have announced they finally reached nominal capacity, and it’s a big deal. Having a plant reach nominal capacity after four years is something we see a lot. The last of the simulations, reaching 25 percent the first year, that isn’t so common—it means the plant design is bad, and it’s not something you normally see. The supplier likely hasn’t done the work properly.

So when it comes to training plant operators and personnel, what do you see as the biggest learning curve?
FM: To transfer the information, and effectively demonstrate and instill an understanding that pelleting is not just operating one equipment component after the other. Just because you know how to operate a pellet mill doesn’t mean you know how to produce pellets. The dryer, the hammer mill, these are very important, but only parts of it. There should be an understanding of what goes on throughout the process, and the raw material and its evolution. So while you might know very well how a pellet mill is run and all the details of it, if your raw material arrives with high moisture or larger particle size than required, you still won’t be able to produce quality pellets. So again, you can learn about a pellet mill or hammer mill, but understanding the process takes time, experience and, at the plant, having conversations with everyone involved from maintenance people to wood yard operators and logistics.

At the end of the day, there are no shortcuts in how you operate and maintain your plant. Trying to save money by expanding the lifetime of a component longer than you should, especially dies and rollers, goes against your plant performance. At first it seems like a savings, but in the long run, it’s not.
Author: Anna Simet
Editor, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]