Drax’s Mississippi Queen

With two production facilities nearing completion in Mississippi and Louisiana, the Baton Rouge Transit Facility is a vital link between the fiber resources of the lower Mississippi and a power station in North Yorkshire, England.
By Tim Portz | September 01, 2014

A map of Loblolly Pine range in the southeastern U.S. illustrates that the western fifth of the resource is neatly cleaved from the rest by the Mississippi River. The area without Loblolly Pines forms an isthmus that narrows near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Drax Biomass, the U.S.-based pellet production subsidiary of the U.K.’s Drax Group LLC, has positioned its production and distribution assets. The Mississippi River links all of it to the Atlantic trade routes, and ultimately, the boilers at Drax’s power station.

For now, Drax is building two pellet production facilities, one on each side of the river. The pellet facility east of the Mississippi is located near Gloster, straight north of Baton Rouge. West of the Mississippi, near the northern border of Louisiana and the town of Bastrop, is Drax’s Morehouse production facility. Together, the two plants are expected to produce nearly 1 million metric tons of wood pellets annually. Recognizing that this volume will need a hub to flow through, Drax began to develop a storage and loading terminal in concert with the production facilities. That terminal is the Baton Rouge Transit Facility, located just across the river from downtown Baton Rouge in Port Allen.
The facility is being built on property leased from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, situated at the head of the deep water navigation channel maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 45-foot deep channel can accommodate Panamax-sized vessels, and is connected to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, a 1000-mile barge corridor reaching from Texas to Florida.

Construction of the facility began in 2013 by Lexington, Kentucky-based design and build firm Gray Construction, and is expected to begin commercial operations in the first quarter of 2015. “We haven’t disclosed the capital cost of the port facility, just our U.S. investment as a whole, which is around £225 million ($375 million) for two pellet plants and a port facility,” says Ken Budreau, Drax senior vice president of development. “The port investment is the smallest component of Drax’s overall U.S. production and distribution effort,” he continues.

Connected to Rail and Road

While construction expenses of the port facility may not rival the expenses of the production facilities that will very soon be producing the pellets that flow through it, its efficient operation is vital to Drax’s North American pellet supply chain success. Drax’s Amite Bioenergy facility in Gloster is within practical truck range and expects to move its production to the Port Allen facility over the road. The Morehouse Bioenergy facility is nearly 200 miles away, and Drax intends to utilize an existing Union Pacific rail line to move finished product to the facility.

 Trucks typically move 25 tons of pellets per load; rail cars move 100 tons per car. The expected production volume from Amite Bioenergy will require 20,000 truck deliveries in a year, or nearly 80 trucks per day, under a Monday through Friday delivery schedule. The facility has been designed to handle and unload at a rate of 10 trucks per hour, with an expected truck-to-truck time of just over four minutes.

In order to leverage the transportation advantage offered by the rail line that connects the facility with the Morehouse plant, the terminal was built with a rail unloader, which has been designed to unload four rail cars per hour. Working with Llloyd’s Register Rail, Drax has designed and patented a rail car specifically engineered for pellet transport, but for now, the plan is to use converted grain wagons to move Morehouse’s output.

A Familiar Skyline

Once delivered, inbound pellets must immediately be moved to covered storage. Like the power station in Drax, the Baton Rouge Transit Facility skyline is defined by the two storage domes that were built in the spring and summer of this year. Acknowledging that the storage domes link the two facilities visually, Budrea notes, “The most obvious similarity between the two locations is the storage domes. We have four slightly larger storage domes at the Drax Power Station site in the U.K., compared to the two at the port, although the actual detail of the technology does differ.”

Capable of holding 40,000 tons each, storage capacity at the facility can accommodate roughly one month of production from the two facilities coming on line. Conveyors capable of moving 1,800 tons of pellets per hour will connect the rail and truck unloading buildings with the domes. The conveyors move pellets to the top of the domes and onto the waiting piles. When it’s time to move pellets out of the storage dome and onto a waiting vessel, the pellets will gravity-feed to conveyors situated underneath the domes for final movement to the ship loader. If the pellets stop free flowing for any reason, each dome is equipped with a massive screw reclaimer, capable of moving the remaining pellets along at a rate of 400 tons per hour.

Once inside the storage domes, careful attention must be paid to the pellets and the pile. “The facility will use spark and heat detection together while employing strict operational procedures,” Budreau says of the terminal’s fire and explosion protection strategy. Fire and explosions are a constant concern for anyone producing or handling wood pellets, and fires have already occurred along the emerging pellet supply chain. As a result, Drax is utilizing multiple technologies to identify sparks and hot spots before they can become a real problem.

The Final Leg

The Port of Greater Baton Rouge boasts an impressive 400-acre deepwater complex capable of berthing five different vessels at once. Consequently, the port’s robust existing business required Drax’s pellet handling facility to be neatly tucked into existing bulk dry storage and liquid fuel infrastructure. The facility has been placed in the third of the deepwater complex that lies north of the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, which carries Interstate 10, towering over 175 feet above the river below. The storage domes are tucked between a sugar cane products warehouse and a fuel terminal tank farm.To load ships, pellets must travel along covered conveyors east toward the river, and finally, over two warehouses that sit alongside Cargo Dock No. 2, where the facility’s mobile ship loader is being constructed. The loader, a hulking grey structure built upon rails, will traverse north and south along the quay and the vessels docked alongside it. Once complete, the last sequence of conveyors and the mobile shiploader will be capable of moving 1,200 metric tons of pellets per hour, loading a Panamax carrier in three days without ever having to reposition the vessel. Logistically, time is money, and the mobile shiploader introduced vital efficiencies into the facility’s overall plan.

One million tons of pellets is a significant volume to move. To date, only a small handful of ports have experienced moving that kind of pellet volume, and no ports can rightly claim to have prolonged experience in pellet handling and transport. Drax’s entire conversion, however, hinges upon this and other Atlantic and Gulf Coast facilities seamlessly integrating pellet volumes into their operations. While clearly built to enable Drax to effectively move the volumes produced at its own facilities, the terminal has additional capacity. “The facility is designed to handle volumes in excess of the output of our two pellets plants under construction,” Budreau says.

While the Drax team may have had an idea that transitioning away from coal inputs to biomass would have widespread impacts, the enormity of the logistical challenge could not have been fully understood. Yorkshire is a long way from the loblolly pine forests of the American South. Fiber harvested from this incredible resource will travel by truck, rail and ship, and efficiency all along this supply chain is paramount to the economic and environmental success of Drax’s efforts. Once complete, the Baton Rouge Transit Facility will knit the entire system together, thus playing a vital role in Drax’s bid to become the world’s largest single-site producer of renewable, baseload power.

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Editor, Biomass Magazine