SE conference kicks off on a high note: pellets

By Lisa Gibson | November 02, 2011

“It’s pretty obvious to see why pellets are in the Southeast,” said Mike Williams, director of strategy and planning for The Westervelt Co., showing a map of the wood resources in the region to attendees of the Southeast Biomass Conference & Trade Show.

The event is being held in Atlanta, Ga., Nov. 1-3 and it’s first general session panel discussion, “Producers’ Perspective: A Manufacturers Roundtable on the Southeast’s Growing Pellet Industry,” revolved around the region’s capacity for making and exporting pellets. The topic was fitting for a regional show, confirmed by the preceding keynote speaker Jill Stuckey, director of the Center of Innovation for Energy at Georgia’s Environmental Finance Authority. “The pellet industry is king,” she told a crowd of about 330 attendees. “It’s happening and people are making money.”

The Westervelt Co.’s Westervelt Renewable Energy is taking advantage of that opportunity, having just broken ground on its 280,000-metric-ton-per-year pellet plant in Aliceville, Ala., on Oct. 25. The company has a pellet business plan that specifies production of 1 million metric tons at multiple mills in the Southeast, using wood from its 520,000-plus acres, as well as third-party wood, Williams said.

“Competition is good,” he added. “We welcome competition. We just want good, well-thoughtout competition.” Williams said he personally expects about 9 million metric tons of pellet exports by 2015 from eight ports in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast. The total tonnage for 2011 is about 1.2 million.

Enviva makes up a large portion of that, with its 726,000 metric tons per year from four plants. “The potential is enormous,” said Pete Najera, vice president of operations for Enviva. The company exports its pellets, but Najera said more and more U.S. utilities are coming through its offices inquiring about biomass fuel. In fact, Enviva recently signed a contract to supply Dominion Virginia Power with 1 million tons of wood chips.

“Everything we do is about meeting the customers’ needs,” he said. The company’s five golden rules of pellet production are safety first; production of quality pellets; achieve total production volume; maintain material process flow; and excellent equipment and facility maintenance. “An accident at one plant hurts us all,” he said of plant safety, Enviva’s No. 1 rule.

The company also has a 50,000-metric-ton-per-year pellet plant in Belgium, having started its pelleting business in Europe. Georgia Biomass, Waycross, Ga., also stems from Europe, producing 750,000 metric tons per year for RWE, its parent company and one of the top five integrated utilities in Europe, according to Sam Kang, managing director of Georgia Biomass.

The pellet mill uses about 1.5 million metric tons on its 300-plus acre site. The plant was formed to complete the supply chain for RWE, Kang said. “We’ve created a lot of jobs along the supply chain,” he added. Kang agreed with the other panelists that demand will increase, but added that RWE is unsure how much and when.

“Anything and everything you want to know about the industrial pellet industry is right here in these three brains on the stage,” moderator Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, said of the highly-informed panel.

For more information on the conference, click here.