Tag: biomass energy

How one company helped transform the biomass business

Westfield terminal

If asked to picture Canada, its beautiful forests often spring to mind. In fact, 38% of the country is covered by them. Little wonder that Canada has one of the world’s biggest lumber industries. But all that lumber milling means a lot of sawdust.

It was in this sawdust, and the other ‘waste’ products the milling process creates, that one fledgling Canadian company spotted an opportunity.

Making the most of waste

Started by two brothers in the 1980s, Pinnacle originally made animal feed for farmers – compressed pellets of grass and grain.

Then, in the late Eighties, after hearing about wood pellet production in Scandinavia, and taking a look at all the sawmilling residues being burned up around them, they had an idea for a new direction.

At the time the Canadian government was looking to make the sawmilling industry a lot cleaner and more sustainable. “There was a lot of fibre around that needed to find a home,” explains Vaughan Bassett, a senior executive with the company.

Canada needed a way to put to good use materials that were previously just thrown away or even burnt out in the open, releasing greenhouse gas emissions, and wood pellets seemed like a natural fit. Even better, because there was so much waste fibre around at the time, Pinnacle was able to get its raw material for free and help to avoid the unnecessary emissions. All it had to do was pick it up and take it away.

Pinnacle Lavington grand opening

Finding a new business model

Making the transition from feed pellets to wood pellets involved a lot of trial and error.

“There was a lot of entrepreneurial spirit that went into this thing,” says Bassett. “It was untried, untested, unknown and there was no real market. It was just a couple of entrepreneurs trying stuff out.”

Initially, Pinnacle produced its wood pellets for local domestic markets – people looking to heat their homes, local businesses, and schools that used wood burners. This is a particularly convenient and efficient form of fuel for communities in off-the-grid, remote areas of Canada. But Pinnacle was keen to grow and make an even greater impact.

Rising demand for sustainability

By the early 2000s, some in the power generation industry were starting to rethink their long-term futures, looking to shift from fossil fuels like coal to cleaner alternatives in order to meet the challenges of sustainable energy production.

Central to Pinnacle’s business is a commitment to sustainability – something being based in Canada, where forest management is particularly advanced, makes possible. Being owned by the Crown, there are very tight controls over how Canadian forests are run – and how the trees are used.

“We’ve probably got the most sustainable wood fibre in the world. The numbers are just mad. Something like 95% of all the forests in Canada are ‘forest management certified’, which is unbelievable. Look at the next best country and it’s probably nearer 30%,” says Bassett, “It’s left us with an incredible asset that keeps growing every year. The industry never takes more wood than what grows.”

Indeed, carefully managed forestry is key to environmental sustainability. Fully-grown older trees don’t absorb as much CO2, so replacing them with younger, growing trees that do, can benefit the environment. Meanwhile, the waste product of sawmilling is converted into biomass, which produces further benefits by reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

Pinnacle and Drax: A sustainable partnership

Pinnacle first started supplying Drax with compressed wood pellets in 2009, marking a turning-point for the company. “Since 2011, our production has doubled,” says Bassett.

Pinnacle now contracts a fleet of ships and has its own dedicated port facility. Each vessel can transport 60,000 tonnes. Given that Drax uses around 16,000 tonnes a day with two of its three biomass units at full capacity, one shipment keeps a third of the huge power station in North Yorkshire going for nearly four days.

“Pinnacle now produces in the region of 1.5m tonnes of pellets a year, about half of which goes to Drax. So they’re a very important part of what we do,” says Bassett.

Read the Burns Lake and Houston pellet plant catchment area analysis here, part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. Others in the series can be found here

Forests, sustainability and biomass – the expert’s view

It was a forestry catastrophe that first inspired Matthew Rivers’ interest in forests.

Dutch Elm trees, an iconic part of the UK landscape for over 250 years were becoming infected with a fatal and fast-spreading disease. The race was on to save them.

A schoolboy in North London at the time, Rivers joined the after curricular school team tasked with saving its trees – first by injecting them with insecticide, and when that didn’t work, by felling and replanting them. It was an early foundation in how forests work and the challenges of keeping them healthy.

Decades later, Rivers is Director of Corporate Affairs at Drax. It’s a role he finds himself in following a career as a forester, helping to manage forestry businesses, and supporting the setting up of wood product manufacturing plants.

His own estimation of his working life is a humble one, however. “I think I’m probably a failed farmer,” he says.

“A forester always plants in hope.”

Rivers studied forestry at university in Scotland before taking up jobs in the forestry industry across the UK, Uruguay and Finland. Working in this industry, he says, is one that requires patience.

“In the UK we’re talking about 30- or 40-year growth cycles. The trees I planted at the start of my career are only just coming to maturity now,” he explains.

But more than the long investment of time, being a forester relies on faith. “A forester always plants in hope,” he says. When a forester plants a tree, he or she most commonly does not know who the end customer will be.

So when the call came from Drax for a forestry expert to help guide the company through an important transformation – upgrading the power station from coal to biomass – the challenge was one he was ready to take.

“Drax already had ambitions of converting three boilers to run on biomass. That would mean consuming tonnes of compressed wood pellets,” he says. The business needed a supply, and Rivers was drafted in to set this up.

As part of the supply solution, and Chaired by Rivers, Drax set up Drax Biomass, a pellet manufacturing business in the USA that makes and supplies compressed wood pellets to Drax Power Station.

Setting up its own manufacturing plant not only means Drax needs to rely on fewer external suppliers, but also that it can use the learnings about the technologies, the economics and the sourcing of the process to continually hone its supply chain.

To operate responsibly and receive governmental support, Drax has to be sustainable, and this is particularly important when it comes to where and how it sources its fuel. This comes with its own challenges.

No universal definition of sustainability

“To my understanding, there is no universal definition of sustainability,” says Rivers. So how do you proof your business for an unclear entity?

“At its heart, sustainability is about not doing anything today that would prejudice doing the same thing for the next generation or generations to come.”

A responsibly managed forest is one that is as healthy, productive, diverse and useful in 100 or 500 years’ time as it is today. They key to this, is to think of forests as a whole.

Rivers explains: “Think about a single tree – you fell it and use it to heat your home over one winter. But it’s going to take perhaps 30 years for that tree to grow back,” he says. “What do you do for the next 30 years?”

“In a sustainably managed forest you have all different ages of tree represented – one thirtieth devoted to each age- and, when you use an older tree to warm you in winter, you plant a replacement. That way, for every year you’ll have trees reaching maturity ready to provide your power.” It’s a cycle that, if managed responsibly, keeps delivering a useful resource as well as maintaining the health of the forest.

Rivers continues: “Sustainability is the very nature of what a forester does; because if we don’t take care of our forests, and ensure we have a crop to harvest year after year, we lose our livelihood.”

forests_trees_growing_for_winter_heating_smh4nj

Becoming a private forester

Two decades ago, Rivers completed a loop he started decades ago amidst the Dutch Elm crisis and became a forest owner himself. In Scotland, he bought, and now manages, his own private forest.

“We’ve had kids’ birthday parties, we’ve dug out a pond, we harvest chanterelles in the autumn – there’s a millennium capsule buried somewhere,” he says.

It’s not only a family heirloom. It’s a place for him to exercise a passion – maintaining and managing a responsible and healthy forest.

 

This is how you make a biomass wood pellet

Compressed wood pellets

Wood has been used as fuel for tens of thousands of years, but this wood – a compressed wood pellet – is different. It’s the size of a child’s crayon and weighs next to nothing, but when combined with many more it is a smart solution to generating cleaner electricity compared to coal.

Wood pellets like these are being used at Drax Power Station to generate electricity and power cities. Not only are they renewable and sustainable, but because they are compressed, dried and made from incredibly fine wood fibres, they’re also a very efficient fuel for power stations.

This is how a compressed wood pellet is made at the Drax Biomass Amite BioEnergy Pellet Plant in Mississippi.

The wood arrives to the yard

Wood arrives at the plant via truck and is sent to one of four places: the wood storage yard, the wood circle (where wood is primed for processing), the piles of sawdust and woodchip, or straight into processing.

Bark is removed and kept for fuel

Logs are fed into a debarker machine, which beats the logs together inside a large drum to remove the bark. The bark is put aside and used to fuel the woodchip dryer, used later in the process.

Thinned wood stems become small chips

The logs – low-value fibre from sustainably managed working forests – need to be cut down into even smaller pieces so they can then be shredded into the fine material needed for creating pellets. Inside the wood chipper multiple blades spin and cut the logs into chips roughly 10mm long and 3mm thick. The resulting chips are fed into the woodchip pile, ready for screening.

Chips are screened for quality and waste is removed

Chipped down wood can include waste elements like sand, remaining bark or stones that can affect pellet production. The chips are passed through a screener that removes the waste, leaving only ideal sized wood chips.

The biggest hairdryer you’ve ever seen

The wood chips need to have a moisture level of between 11.5% and 12% before they go into the pelleting process. Anything other than this and the quality of the resulting pellets could be compromised. The chips enter a large drum, which is blasted with hot air generated in a heater powered by bark collected from the debarker. The chips are moved through the drum by a large fan, ready for the hammer mill.

Wood pellet Hammer Mill

Small woodchips become even smaller woodchips

Inside the hammer mill there’s a spinning shaft mounted with a series of hammers. The wood chips are fed into the top of the drum and the spinning hammers chip and shred them down into a fine powdery substance that is used to create the pellets.

Putting the chips under pressure – a lot of pressure

The shredded woodchip powder is fed into the pellet mill. Inside, a rotating arm presses the powdered wood fibre through a grate featuring a number of small holes. The intense pressure heats up the wood fibre and helps it bind together as it passes through the holes in a metal ring dye, forming the compressed wood pellets.

Resting and cooling down

Fresh pellets from the mill are damp and hot, and need to rest and cool before transporting off site. They’re moved to large storage silos kept at low temperatures so the pellets can cool and harden, ready for shipping.

One of the biggest domes you’ve ever seen

This is the final stage before shipping. Specially designed and constructed storage domes are used to store the wood pellets after they are transported to the Mississippi River, Louisiana and before they make their way across the Atlantic to the UK.

The 4 most common myths about renewables

Renewables make up more of the world’s energy mix than ever before. And yet, misconceptions about these new or alternative technologies – such as biomass, solar and wind – are common.

Some of these concerns are – for the time being – partly justified, some completely subjective, and some are demonstrably wrong. Here’s a closer look at the most pervasive myths and what truth there is behind them.

Renewables are unpredictable

An oft-repeated misconception is that renewables aren’t a full-time solution to our power needs. It’s true that solar isn’t generated at night and wind turbines don’t operate in still weather, but the canon of renewables is bigger than its two most well-known technologies.

Tidal power still depends on environmental factors, but tides are much more predictable than wind or sunlight. For countries lucky enough to have ready access, geothermal power – which uses heat from the earth’s core to power generators – is even more reliable.

Biomass solutions, such as compressed wood pellets, are a fuel-based power source, meaning they are flexible so can be used to generate electricity on demand and operate as a base-load power option, much like coal or gas. At Drax Power Station renewable electricity is generated on demand using compressed wood pellets and delivered to the National Grid 24-hours-a-day.

Now, thanks to advances in weather forecasting, the National Grid can plan ahead to balance the system with other renewable and low carbon technologies when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Just a few years ago the primary fall back was relying on coal power stations to pick up any slack.

It might not be possible to power the world entirely with one renewable source, but the right mix of technologies could provide an answer to the question of how to ensure a stable and secure low carbon energy supply.

Heavenly Scene Stormy Skies

Renewables are expensive

There is some truth in this, but it’s important to note that these costs are falling. Many of the high costs associated with renewables have been down to a lack of infrastructure investment.

A number of the components required in construction of structures like wind turbines and solar panels are expensive. And, as many renewable facilities need to be located in different areas to existing traditional facilities, extensive power grid extension is often needed. But these are problems that once set up, should bring down the costs of renewables such as solar and wind.

Setting up biomass-powered facilities is considerably cheaper. Compressed wood pellets can be used in upgraded coal power stations, so there’s no need for expensive new connections to the high-voltage electricity transmission system.

There are even ways renewables could bring about cheaper power for consumers. Research commissioned by Drax and published by NERA Economic Consulting and Imperial College London found that, if the same government support offered to some renewable technologies (i.e. wind and solar) were open to all (such as biomass), consumers could see potential savings of £2 billion on their energy bills.

Renewables are ugly

While this isn’t necessarily an opinion shared by everyone, it is one that is often cited. Onshore wind farms often draw the most ire, but they aren’t alone. Large investments are being made in offshore wind farms, which are both more discrete and better positioned to take advantage of stronger offshore currents.

And hydropower projects like dams and tidal barrages can in the long term create whole new habitats, ecosystems and leisure facilities in the form of artificial lakes and surrounding forests.

Nobody uses renewables

In 2015, 99% of Costa Rica’s electricity came from renewable sources, including hydro, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar. Closer to home, Sweden draws more than 50% of its electricity from renewable sources, including 22% from bioenergy – 90% of which comes from forestry.

In the UK, renewables use is steady and rising, accounting for 25% of all electricity generated domestically in 2015. In the first half of 2016, 20% of the UK’s renewable power was supplied by Drax. Contrast those figures against coal, which in the UK declined from supplying 30.8% of UK power needs in Q1 2015 to just 15.8% in Q1 2016, and our increasing use of renewables is even more evident.

Consumers have been buying 100% renewable electricity tariffs from companies such as Good Energy for more than a decade. Businesses are increasingly getting in on the act too. Two thirds of the power generated by Drax in the first half of 2016 was sold directly to companies via Drax Group’s business electricity supplier, Haven Power.

And with campaigns such as RE100 challenging the world’s biggest firms to commit to renewable-only power, household brands such as Ikea, M&S and Google are either already 100% renewable or only a few years away.

Misconceptions about renewables will remain as long as we’re still in the transition out of fossil fuel use. But the industry has made huge strides from where it was just 10 years ago.

Thanks to better, more affordable technology, an increasingly friendly corporate sector, and a greater awareness of environmental issues at large, these products and services will continue to improve, grow and increasingly becoming more mainstream.

How does Europe use biomass?

Family on summer Senja coast (Norway, polar day)

At the heart of Norse folklore is a figure called Yggdrasil that connects its nine worlds and gods. It’s an immensely important and holy icon, but it is not a god itself – it is an ash tree.

That the central figure of mythical Scandinavian cosmology should be something as humble as a tree is no surprise, Scandinavia is a heavily forested region. Sweden, the largest country in the area, is more than 68% forest. Wood is an inherent part of life there. For thousands of years it’s been used as a resource and a fuel, and today is no different.

Throughout much of Europe the same is true. But, while historically wood was used only for cooking, heating and light, today its use as a form of energy also includes generating electricity and heat when formed into compressed wood pellets.

Europe and wood pellets

Nearly 22 million tonnes (Mt) of wood pellets were used in the European Union in 2015, making the region the leading wood pellet consumer in the world. It is also the world’s leading producer, creating roughly half of the world’s global output – largely from European trees.

A report from the Standing Forestry Committee, set up to represent the forestry industries in EU countries, found that just 4% of the woody biomass used in the EU was imported.

Of the 22Mt used across Europe, 10.5Mt was used for heating, while 11.5Mt was used for industrial uses like fueling power plants. But in the UK, the level of wood used for fuel falls some way behind EU averages. Thanks in large part to Drax and its transition from coal to renewable wood pellet-powered electricity generation, that’s changing, but the UK still has a way to go to catch the continental average.

Where is the UK falling behind and how is wood being used to power the rest of the continent? Here, we look at some of the largest consumers and producers of biomass in Europe and how it’s being used.

Sweden

Sweden is the third highest consumer of wood as a source of energy in Europe, trailing only Finland and Latvia in its use. A key use of biomass in Sweden is powering district heating systems. In a district heating system, rather than each building or home having its own boiler, whole areas of cities are heated through a single central plant distributing heat to buildings. These plants can be powered by a variety of fuels, but many run on wood pellets or distribute the waste heat captured at power plants.

rax_europe_biomass_sweden

Germany

In 1713, an accountant and mining administrator, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, published what is considered the first ever book to look in depth at forestry management, effectively kickstarting the modern idea of sustainable forestry. In the 300 years that have passed, Germany has embraced the cultivation of wood and has made wood and biomass a fixed part of its energy makeup.

More recently, the Renewable Energy Heating Act and Market Incentive Programme was passed in 2009, which requires new building owners to provide a percentage of their heat from renewable sources, including wood-fired boilers. The aim is to increase the country’s share of renewable heat to 14% by 2020.

Europe, Biomass, Germany

Finland

Nearly three quarters of Finland is forestland, making it one of the most forested countries in the world, let alone Europe. As a result, wood plays a large part in Finnish culture. Stora Enso, one of the world’s leading paper and packaging manufacturers is Finnish and more than 20% of the country’s exports are from wood and wood products. Coupled with a strong focus generating much of its energy from renewables, energy derived from wood and products made from wood is high.

drax_europe_biomass_finland

United Kingdom

In 2013, less than 10% of all energy used in the UK was generated from wood and wood products. This places it some way behind countries like Germany and Sweden, in part owing to a lack of infrastructure for providing heating derived from wood and wood biomass.

This could change if the government continues to back technologies equally in initiatives like the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Available to homeowners, landlords and commercial customers, RHI provides incentives for installing generators of renewable heat such as wood pellet boilers.

To reach climate goals, the then Department of Energy and Climate Change noted that both biomass-driven electricity generation and heating should continue to increase in the UK. And with the upgrade of Drax and Lynemouth power stations from coal to compressed wood pellets, there are positive signs the UK can catch up to the European biomass average. In doing so, renewable biomass electricity generation can also help increase wind and solar power generation in the UK, and help create a more sustainable energy future.

drax_europe_biomass_united_kingdom

Sustainable Biomass Program – proving biomass is sustainable

I was honoured to be able to accept the Excellence in Bioenergy award recently. Not for myself, but on behalf of all my colleagues at Drax who have worked so hard to make a reality of our shared plan to generate reliable, renewable electricity. Our achievements are truly a team effort.

In 2015, Drax became a predominantly biomass-fuelled power station.

We now generate more electricity at Drax power station from compressed low-grade wood pellets than from coal – between three and four per cent of the UK’s entire demand every day.

It’s a major triumph for all the brilliant engineers involved in converting the plant and everyone who has helped secure the incredibly complex supply chain that keeps it running.

But we truly believe that this is only the beginning for sustainable biomass.

Sustainable biomass is the ideal fuel to help the world decarbonise in an affordable and reliable way. It can support other renewables like wind and solar when the elements are against them and backup power is needed.

Because it can be created by upgrading existing coal-fired power stations, it can be added to the electricity grid in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost of building new power stations. Why should the UK only build brand-new gas and nuclear power stations when existing coal power stations can be upgraded to low carbon, renewable tech? At Drax, we have shown how engineers working at what once was the biggest coal power station in western Europe can use their expertise to work with compressed wood pellet power generation.

And it can save bill payers billions of pounds when the true costs of bringing other renewables on stream are taken into account.

The industry’s greatest challenge right now is in proving that all the biomass we use is truly sustainable.

At Drax we have proven the sustainability of the biomass we use time and time again. But we can and will do more to ensure that standards right across the industry are always equally high.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sustainability. No corners can be cut. We must all join together and meet this challenge. Because without sustainable biomass there will be no industry at all. Without sustainable biomass in a balanced energy system with other renewables and low carbon technologies, the Paris climate change summit commitments may not be reached.

This is why the Sustainable Biomass Program is so important. The SBP has developed a certification framework  to provide assurance that woody biomass is sourced from legal and sustainable sources.

By working with the SBP, all of us in the industry alongside hard working families and businesses stand to benefit. Which is why all of us at Drax welcome its inception, and look forward to working with the SBP to help build a growing and healthy industry that helps our society transition to the renewable fuels of the future.

May 2017 update: the SBP has changed its name to the Sustainable Biomass Program — you can read its first annual report here.