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Wood power: Drax making improvements two years into operation

When Drax Biomass began construction of its wood pellet mill north of Bastrop, it projected the $160 million facility would create 45 full-time jobs. Two years into its operation that estimate has been proven wrong. There are more than 65 full-time workers, a company official said.

Morehouse Bioenergy became operational in 2015. The decision to develop such a facility was made when Drax wanted to be assured of a steady supply of compressed wood pellets for its power plant that provides about 8 percent of electricity to the United Kingdom. In 2014, it converted the second of its six coal-burning turbines to biomass.

Drax Biomass supplies 10-12 percent of Drax Power Station wood pellet demand, said David Malkin, director of communications and policy, who is stationed at Drax Biomass offices in Atlanta.

“Our goal is to increase that to 20-30 percent,” Malkin said.

Morehouse Bioenergy is only one part of Drax’s toehold in the compressed wood pellet industry. The second part is Amite Bioenergy, a similar pellet plant in Gloster, Mississippi. Both plants ship pellets to a dome storage facility at the Port of Baton Rouge in Port Allen.

Pellets made at the Mississippi facility are sent by truck because it’s nearer to the port. Pellets made at the Morehouse Parish facility are sent by rail.

“When we fill up 45 cars, we send them to the port,” Plant Manager Brad Mayhew said, which is about twice a week.

In a year’s time, the plant will produce roughly 450,000 metric tons of pellets for the UK power provider.

The Process To make the pellets, the plant takes in residuals from logging jobs that have been chipped and taken to the facility by container trucks. A dock lifts the entire truck and trailer to an almost vertical position to empty the trailer. Chipped material accounts for about 25 percent of the plant’s wood supply, Mayhew said.

The other 75 percent is pulpwood taken to the plant by log trucks. The logs are stripped of their bark and sent to a chipper. The chips are piled up as an inventory buffer and storage between the chipping and drying stages.

The chips are scraped off of the pile and sent by conveyor to the dryer, but only after being sifted so that nothing larger than about a quarter of an inch goes to the dryer. Larger pieces go through a second chipping phase before heading to the dryer.

“It’s about 20 minutes to go from the front of the dryer to the end,” Mayhew said.

Dried chips have about 12 percent or less moisture content and are sent to a silo, another inventory buffer that allows for continuous operation of the plant. From the silo, the chips go to the hammer mill, which pulverizes and sifts the material and sends it to another silo.

“Anything too large goes to another hammer mill,” Mayhew said.

After being screened, the pulverized wood is sent to the pellet mill where it is extruded by centrifuge through a metal die. The pellets heat up in the process so they have to be cooled before being loaded into the railcars.

Stations in the cooling process allow technicians to take samples to be tested.

“They test for mechanical durability,” Mayhew said, “how well the pellet is going to still remain a pellet when it arrives in Europe.”

As long as the plant is producing pellets, quality technicians perform their periodic tests by putting the pellets in a tumbling machine that turns them to determine their durability. Technicians also test for moisture content, which should be about 6 percent or less.

Economic Engine Staffing the test station with full-time quality technicians was one of the changes from the originally estimated personnel.

“Although we initially planned on creating roughly 45 new jobs at our plant, we’ve since increased that number to 68 full-time employees as a result of ongoing workforce reviews that have helped us to identify staffing gaps,” Malkin said. “By filling these gaps, we’ve managed to improve our performance, quality and reliability while maintaining our strong safety record.”

The new facility gave an economic boost to the region. Average salary, including overtime, exceeded $47,000 in 2016, its first full calendar year of operations. Annual payroll last year was about $3.9 million. The employees Drax hires there also have opportunities to advance to other jobs at the plant with more responsibility and better pay.

“I guess I’m a good example of that,” Mayhew said, adding that there are many more examples at the plant.

In May, Mayhew was promoted from operations manager to plant manager. His predecessor is now regional operations manager.

The economic impact, however, is further reaching, Malkin said. The facility also supports about 150 indirect jobs through logging, hauling and “logistics-related” jobs. That includes about $23 million for annual fiber procurement alone.

Morehouse Bioenergy also participates in the community in many ways, such as sponsoring youth recreation sports teams, local school bands and providing supplies to some local schools, for example.

Improvements In 2017, Drax will spend about $20 million on improvements to the two-year-old plant.

It has already laid a concrete foundation for a rail on which sits its giant crane that loads wood into the debarker. The old rock-base rail was problematic at times, Mayhew said. The concrete base will offer more stability and improve overall safety.

Near the crane, a second truck dump to unload chip trucks will be installed next to the existing one.

On the opposite side of the plant, another truck dump will be built to receive dry shavings from sawmills, Malkin said, along with a storage facility. The shavings will join the pellet-making process at the hammer mill. Mayhew said Drax expects using the shavings to be cheaper because they will bypass the drying process. It also provides an important market for sawmill residuals.

Malkin said adding the shavings will increase annual production by about 75,000 tons, bringing total capacity to 525,000 tons of wood pellets each year.

New Pellet Mill Drax’s production of compressed wood pellets in Louisiana soon will double when the old Louisiana Pellets mill in Urania is up and running. Drax Biomass’ winning bid of $35.4 million to purchase the assets of the idle mill was accepted by bankruptcy court and finalized April 25. Previous owners German Pellets entered its U.S. subsidiary into bankruptcy in February 2016. The plant opened as German Pellets in 2015 with a production capacity of 578,000 metric tons. Reorganization was made only months into the process and it became Louisiana Pellets. The Urania facility is now LaSalle Bioenergy.

“We’re targeting early 2018 for the plant to be back up and running,” Malkin said.

As of May 1, Malkin said Drax had already hired 28 former Louisiana Pellets employees, but the total number of employees for the facility won’t be determined until it’s at full capacity. It’s likely, however, the Urania plant will be staffed on par with Drax’s other facilities.

Drax also submitted a bid for Texas Pellets, also formerly German Pellets, but that bankruptcy case is separate and in a different bankruptcy court district. Auction dates have been postponed twice. As of May 1, an auction to sell that facility had not been rescheduled.

Once LaSalle Bioenergy is operational, Drax will meet its goal of providing 20 percent of its annual demand. If successful in purchasing the Texas plant, that percentage will increase. “In addition to Texas Pellets, we’re also looking into other distressed assets or financially attractive properties that can help us reach our 30 percent self-supply target,” Malkin said.

Drax also is keeping its eye on the world market for pellets.

Japan is looking into pellets and there are other European markets where Drax could consider selling its pellets, Malkin said.

Recent reports from Bioenergy Insight state Japan is turning to bioenergy and away from nuclear power following the disaster at its Fukushima plant in 2011.

“We want to tell (Louisiana) that we’re committed to the industry and the communities,” Malkin said.

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