Tag: supply chain

This train isn’t like any other in the UK

Man standing in front of train

For decades the sight was the same. Day after day, trains pulling open-top wagons filled with coal would arrive at Drax Power Station. Coal was the fuel on which the station ran, but as that changes and the world moves from the dirtiest of fossil fuels to renewables and other lower carbon technologies, so too do the make-up of Drax’s daily deliveries.

Now, more than half of Drax’s power is generated from compressed wood pellets instead of coal. The trains still arrive daily, but in addition to coal carriages, more are pulling state-of-the-art biomass wagons. They’re not only the first of a kind, they’re bigger than any others on UK railways.

Moving a modern fuel

Coal and biomass are fundamentally different. Whereas coal is a durable fuel that can be left open to the elements without concern, if compressed wood pellets are left in the rain they become unusable.

In short, traditional hoppers, the large open-top train wagons used to transport coal, aren’t big enough, nor do they provide enough protection, for transporting biomass.

To deliver roughly 20,000 tonnes of wood pellets to the power station every day it would need an entirely new railway wagon. For this Drax turned to Lloyd’s Register Rail (now Ricardo Rail) and WH Davis.

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Putting a lid on it

One of the first things to solve was the open top. The team designed a pneumatically operated roof for each wagon that could open and close on demand – providing easy access for loading, but suitable protection for the pellets when in transit.

A similar system on each wagon’s base was introduced to make unloading just as simple. A typical hopper design includes a wide roof that narrows into a shoot at its base for releasing fuel. The Drax wagons are different.

When they arrive at the power station, automated flaps on their underside open in stages as they pass through the biomass unloading area. This releases pellets into a sorter that delivers them into storage, ready to be used for generation. With this system in place, each train can unload in under 40 minutes.

The big problem: space

A more significant hurdle to overcome was the question of space. The obvious answer was to make the wagons bigger, but UK railways have some of the most restrictive dimensions in the world thanks to its bridges and tunnels – some of which were constructed in Victorian times.

So to get a similar efficiency out of the compressed wood pellet loads as previously obtained with coal, the wagons needed to be bigger – not in physical size, but in volume.

The team looked to the normally unused space at the ends of traditional wagons to house the braking and control equipment cubicle, while the pipework was designed to run inside the wagon’s siding, creating more inside storage space.

The result is a wagon with 116m3 capacity, almost a 30% increase in volume compared to the coal wagons. They are not only the first ever bespoke biomass wagons, they’re also the largest on UK railways.

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Bigger wagons, better economy

The impact of these wagons is felt beyond just the railway lines. WH Davis is the UK’s last independent freight wagon manufacturer and relationships like this are not only good for Drax, but positively impact the wider UK economy.

A joint study by Oxford Economics for Drax calculated that in the East Midlands, where WH Davis is headquartered, Drax supports 1,100 jobs through its supply chain and the resulting economic activity. In total, the report found Drax had added £60.3 million to the local economy through indirect and induced means. Nationwide, in 2015 that impact extended to a total of £1.24 billion in contribution to the UK GDP and more than 14,000 jobs.

There’s potential for this impact to be even greater. Roughly 14 trains arrive every day at the power station from ports in Liverpool, Tyne, Immingham and Hull, delivering up to 20,000 tonnes every day to fuel the three of Drax’s six generating units that run on wood pellets. But if all six are upgraded it will mean more biomass, more deliveries and more trains.

The railways have always been a part of the power station, and in the foreseeable future it’s likely they always will be.

Building a 21st century port

In its long history, the Port of Liverpool has dealt with a number of industries. It’s a port characterised by its ability to adapt to the needs of the time. In 1715 it emerged as one of the world’s first ever wet docks. In the 18th century it was used as a hub for the slave trade.

When slavery was abolished in the early 19th century, Liverpool switched to bringing in the goods of the thriving Empire, such as cotton. When goods like cotton dried up, it switched to the fuel of the Industrial Revolution: coal.

Now as the world (and the UK government) moves away from fuels like coal and towards lower-carbon and renewable resources, the Port of Liverpool needed to adapt once again.

Gary Hodgson, Chief Operating Officer at Peel Ports, explains: “About three years ago everyone was asking, ‘What happens after coal?’”

Biomass silos at the Port of Liverpool

What happens after coal?

Peel Ports is one of the biggest operators of Liverpool’s shipping infrastructure, including Liverpool Port. Seeing that the future of coal was finite, it recognised there was a need for a port that could bring in alternative, renewable fuels.

At the same time Drax was looking for a logistics partner to facilitate the importing of compressed wood pellets. Since 2009 Drax Power Station had begun a process of upgrading its coal-fired boilers to run on sustainable biomass, sourced from huge, well-established working forests. More than this, it had plans to set up its own pellet manufacturing plants in the US South and needed to import large quantities of wood pellets.

The relationship with Peel Ports and Liverpool was obvious. This began a £100 million investment that helped transform the region’s port-station transport infrastructure.

“It’s about working in partnerships with companies,” says Hodgson. “Working this way helps develop solutions that really work.”

The central element of the partnership between Drax and Peel Ports was a radical redesigning of the technical infrastructure. Not only do compressed wood pellets have fundamentally different physical properties to other fuels like coal, they are more combustible and need to be handled safely.

For the three-million-tonne-capacity facility that Peel Ports and Drax wanted to build, innovative supply chain solutions had to be developed.

A tool used to transfer compressed biomass pellets

Shifting biomass in bulk

The first challenge was getting the high-density pellets off giant ships. For this, Peel and Drax designed a solution that uses an Archimedean screw – a long tube with a spiral winding up the inside that allows liquids, or materials that can behave like a liquid (like wood pellets), to defy gravity and travel upwards.

At the top of the screw, the pellets are emptied onto a conveyor belt and carried to one of three purpose-built silos tailored to safely storing thousands of tonnes of biomass.

Here the pellets wait until another conveyor belt deposits them onto specially-design biomass trains where they are transported across the peaks of the Pennines to Drax Power Station near Selby in North Yorkshire.

Each step at the port is automated, designed with supreme efficiency in mind by a team of Drax and Peel Port engineers. End-to-end, port to power station, the whole process can take as little as 12 hours.

Drax biomass ship in the Port of Liverpool

A new chapter for the north

In the varied history of the Port of Liverpool the new facility is another chapter, one that is helping transform the logistics infrastructure and the economic growth of the North West.

Now open and operational, the facility directly employs 50 people – around 500 additional contractors have worked on the project during its construction and development. More than that, it’s an investment in the country’s energy future. It secures a fourth port for Drax –  three others are on the east coast – helping with security of supply.

“We made this investment because we recognised this as the future of the energy mix of the country,” Hodgson explain. “We can’t just rely on one form of power – there has to be an energy mix and we see biomass as a key part of that.”

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

Better sustainability certification standards for healthier forests

Mushrooms in a sustainably managed forest.

An increasing percentage of compressed wood pellets used at Drax Power Station are sourced from its own pellet plants in the southern US, but most biomass still comes from external suppliers.

In order to improve its sustainability systems, Drax has been encouraging suppliers to achieve Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) certification. In the Baltics – a heavily forested region that has long been a source of renewable fuel – this rigorous auditing and certification process identified a new issue with certain types of raw material. The key to solving this problem was not just looking in the right places, but asking the right questions.

A surprising issue

In both Estonia and Latvia, around half the land is forested, so they’re countries in which wood has always played a huge part, not only for society but for the economy. And because it’s so important, it’s well protected by both governments.

“Latvia and Estonia have very strong forest legislation,” says Laura Craggs, Sustainability Compliance Manager at Drax. “You cannot harvest any site without the government giving you written permission.”

So, when it came to Laura’s attention that all forest product manufacturers and users in the region could be using wood from protected forestland called Woodland Key Habitats, it was a surprise.

Certification step change

This issue was raised thanks to Drax’s efforts to improve sustainability standards. Drax has always maintained a rigorous vetting process for suppliers to ensure they operate with sustainable practices. But the creation of the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), a unique certification scheme for woody biomass used in industrial, large-scale energy production, has further improved this.

“SBP raises the bar slightly. It looks at each pellet plant and says ‘these are the standards to meet, show us how you meet them’,” says Craggs. While not a huge departure from the process Drax used previously, there was one added step in the SBP process that in Latvia proved crucial: stakeholder engagement.

The SBP has introduced regional risk assessments, which are conducted by appointed working bodies tasked with, amongst many other things, reaching out to relevant stakeholders in a country or region to assess whether there are any sustainability issues. In Latvia, it was this that brought up the possibility of Woodland Key Habitats being affected.

Identifying it as an issue, however, did not mean it was easy to investigate – in Latvia, Woodland Key Habitats aren’t mapped. Craggs explains: “You can’t avoid these areas if you don’t know where they are.”

Mapping the unknown

Latbio (the Latvian Bioenergy association), an environmental stakeholder group, were the first to respond to the issue raised by NGOs and commissioned a mapping programme to define where Woodland Key Habitats might be found. This mapping involved highlighting the potentially risky areas where Woodland Key Habitats could be, through identifying certain ages and species of forests.

“All roundwood entering a pellet plant is now being checked to ensure it’s not from a Woodland Key Habitat before being brought onto site,” says Craggs. “When you get a delivery of wood, there’s a specific code that comes with it telling you exactly where it came from. What Drax suppliers are now doing is, if the code is from a risky area, they’re rejecting it.”

As the mapping of the risky areas is, by nature, overly prudent, it is important to carry out further checks, as many of the forest areas highlighted as risky may not actually be Woodland Key Habitats. This mapping was followed up by teams of biologists who went to the potential at-risk areas and made more detailed studies, looking for indicators of a valuable biotope, like the presence of lichens, mosses or old growth trees. This work has now been developed into a checklist which harvesting companies can carry out prior to harvesting in these risky areas. If the checklist shows the area has many of the characteristics of a Woodland Key Habitat, the low value roundwood cannot be purchased by the pellet plant. The process has already had a huge effect in raising awareness and training in identifying Woodland Key Habitats.

With these standards in place, the SBP can roll out a more rigorous degree of woodland sustainability certification. The data is then published on their website for full public scrutiny – meaning anyone can check that biomass material is coming from sustainable sources.

Read the Estonia catchment area analysis here, and the Lativa analysis here. These form 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