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.