Tag: sustainability

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

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.

 

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

5 things you never knew about forests

Background. Fir tree branch with dew drops on a blurred background of sunlight

Forests and the products we derive from them are one of the most ubiquitous aspects of human civilisation. Despite the rapid pace of modern life, that isn’t changing.

Forest still covers 30% of the world’s land and in the UK more than an estimated 55 million m3 of wood was used in 2015 – either directly through furniture, books or hygiene paper, or indirectly, in infrastructure like fences, railways or through biomass electricity generation.

Behind all this lies the forest and the industry surrounding it. But how much do you really know about forests?

In some regions forests are increasing

Mention forestry, and there are plenty of people who make the jump to the activities of unscrupulous developers and deforestation. But while forest land is declining worldwide (in fact, we’ve lost 129 million hectares since 1990), the good news is the rate of decline is dropping sharply, down 50% across the same period.

A lot of this is thanks to growing environmental awareness, responsible forestry management and reforestation around the world. 10,000 hectares of new woodland was created in the UK in 2014 and in the USA, where a third of all land is forested, forestland has been consistently increasing over the last 25 years. There’s been an increase of roughly 7.6 million hectares between 1990 and 2015.

Vigorously growing forests absorb CO2 faster

It’s well known that trees are “the lungs of the earth”, but not all trees or ages are equally effective at absorbing the greenhouse gas CO2. A growing, younger forest is a better sink for carbon dioxide than a forest that is mature and stable. This has implications for the way these resources are used – notably when it comes to the sourcing of material for compressed wood pellets.

Whereas coal releases carbon that has been trapped underground for millions of years, wood releases carbon captured within its lifetime, making it a very low carbon fuel once manufacturing and transportation are factored in. The technique is to harvest trees when they have stopped growing at a fast rate, use the wood for forest products such as timber, pulpwood or compressed wood pellets for energy and replant the area with new, high growth potential trees. The result is a forest with a steady stream of CO2-hungry young trees and a steady stream of renewable raw material.

Forests can stop floods

 A study led by the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton and funded by the Environment Agency, found that forests in Europe play an important role in mitigating the effects of heavy rain.

Thanks to the buffering abilities of the forest canopy and the enormous water absorption capacity of woods and forests, they can slow the flow of a sudden downpour of rain overfilling nearby streams or rivers. This water will eventually be released but slowing its movement mitigates flash flooding.

Different parts of the forest have different uses

The primary commercial product from forests is not a hard one to guess: wood. But there’s more to it than that. For construction timber, the lower, thicker parts of a tree’s trunk are used. Smaller parts of the trunk are used as pulpwood which can be used to make paper, panels or for energy. Residues from the wood processing industry such as sawdust can also be used for compressed wood pellets.

With the rise of the internet, smartphones and e-readers the paper market has been shrinking. Manufacture of high-density wood pellets helps replace demand for wood once used by the paper market, as pellets can be made using low-grade wood, thinnings and residues not used in construction or furniture.

Trees talk to each other

Until recently it was thought that trees perform most of their biological functions in isolation from each other. But biologists have learned in recent years that in fact they communicate and help each other.

Under the forest floor, trees’ roots are linked by bright white and yellow fungal threads, called mycelium. In a forest, these threads act as a kind of network, linking trees to one another.

These links enable trees to share nutrients, carbon and water. Some species of tree also increase nitrogen uptake in the soil and help to improve the conditions in which other species grow. In fact, research by the University of British Columbia, indicates that certain large, older trees that rise above the forest act as ‘mother trees’ which actively help to ‘manage’ the resources for the other trees in the forest.

Based on their findings, it seems trees not only talk to each other, but help each other grow too.

Forbes: Drax joint-second most trustworthy company in Europe

I’m delighted that Drax Group plc has been named by Forbes magazine and MSCI ESG Research as one of the 50 most trustworthy companies in Europe.

In fact, Drax came joint second across the whole continent among companies judged who ‘consistently demonstrated transparent accounting practices and solid corporate governance’.

It’s a massive tribute to everyone involved with Drax that world-leading business experts have recognised our commitment to trust and integrity in this way.

Of course, that commitment goes much further than our accounting practices alone. (I believe my British colleagues would say that it runs right through Drax like the writing in a stick of rock.)

Indeed, it was one of the reasons I was so honoured to be asked to join Drax as CFO. From my very first meeting with CEO Dorothy Thompson, I could see that Drax would always strive do the right thing, in the right way.

That’s just as true for our sustainability data as it is for our business data.

It was our commitment to doing the right thing that led Drax to take on the decision to convert Drax power station from coal to compressed wood pellets.

It is our commitment to doing the right thing that means Drax is reducing emissions by over 80 per cent while giving people and businesses all over the UK the reliable, renewable power that they need.

And we know we can save bill-payers money at the same time.

The UK is lagging far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to generating energy from compressed wood pellets. Drax is committed to bringing us closer to the European average, while helping us move from the fossil fuels of the past to the renewables of the future. And yes, you can trust us on that.

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.