Chasing Down Bottlenecks
Surrounded almost entirely by the sea, Nova Scotia’s lush forestland serves as a mainstay of life on the province, and its proximity to Europe an advantage for trade of forest products like wood pellets. One source of the province’s pellet production resides in the heart of central Nova Scotia. A few years ago, Viridis Energy resurrected the former Enligna Canada Inc. pellet mill and renamed it Scotia Atlantic Biomass Co. The operation occupies a 157-acre property, inhabiting 20 operating buildings with an additional 22-acre wood lot. Since Viridis acquired the assets and property, the plant has been overcoming hiccups and pursuing opportunities, and this is expected to continue. “I think we’re a constant improvement facility,” says Julie Millington, general manager of Scotia Atlantic Biomass. “I don’t think we’re ever going to chase down every bottleneck, as soon as we fix one we look for the next one.”
Some bottlenecks that have already been addressed include the elimination of picket feeders to provide better flow of materials in the hammer mills, moving to a double-belt system versus single to reduce belt damage and replacement costs and maintenance, and lowering grease consumption by installing grease systems on each pelletizer and the charged distribution blocks. Other measures the company has taken include implementing new moisture testing and sampling procedures to better understand the mix and fiber-cost analysis, redefining positions to increase safety and capabilities, and installing steam heaters through the facility to decrease freeze-ups in the winter.
Although the ongoing battle against the plant’s bottlenecks hasn’t been easy, the mill has achieved visible progress, and in Q3 2015, it was able to breakeven and attain profitability on an earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization basis. “It was challenging to change the attitude of many of the staff who were discouraged with missing production targets and financial losses,” says Michele Rebiere, chief financial officer of Viridis Energy. “However, Julie is a great leader with an exceptional outlook and she kept the spirits up and encouraged top performance out of everyone.”A total of 25 employees work at Scotia.
This is one of two pellet mills Viridis operates. “Our diversified business model was developed around two different operations, which could produce two different types of pellets and access two different markets,” Rebiere says.
Scotia Atlantic produces an industrial pellet product to serve the European marketplace, and Okanagan Pellet Co. produces a premium pellet for the North American and Asian marketplaces. OPC does bagging, totes, bulk container loading and bulk rail car loading to satisfy different consumer needs, whereas Scotia Atlantic is a full-bulk operation, which suits the industrial market. Mid-November, Viridis began loading its largest shipment—a 33,000-ton load—of pellets at the Port of Halifax. Scotia has also begun developing an ENplus A1 equivalent pellet for the local and U.S. market.
Churning out consistent production to serve these markets has been one of the facility’s main operational challenges, according to Rebiere. However, since the company right-sized the facility and opted for a 24/4 operation model over the previous 24/7 model, the plant has been “running beautifully,” she says. Scotia Atlantic has practical capacity of 120,000 metric tons annually, but is currently right-sized at 80,000 metric tons per year.
During a mid-April shutdown the plant underwent for maintenance and road closure, the company built up fiber inventory and restructured the staffing model. Round wood inventory was built to allow six weeks on the ground through summer to decrease moisture for winter production. Staffing was reduced to two shifts per day, four days per week, with a maintenance day on Friday and no operation over the weekend. “That allows us to not only do our ongoing maintenance, but start to really focus on what we can do to make repairs,” Millington says. “We ensure that when we start-up on Monday the plant is spick and span, we never have to worry about dust collection, any of the concerns when you’re running 24/7 and it’s a lot harder to keep under control.” She adds that the furnace is kept burning over the weekend on idle so it isn’t a full start-up each week.
Rebiere says right-sizing has “ensured preventative maintenance and matches production to inventory.”
Another aspect of the plant that has helped operations is the plant’s 20 separate buildings. “At the time Scotia Atlantic was built, it was a state-of-the-art facility utilizing the concept of separating and isolating each piece of process equipment,” Rebiere says. “The isolation ensures that a fire or hazard in one area of the plant does not extend to the rest of the facility. It also allows for ease of repair of each component.”
Although bottlenecks have been addressed and operations have improved, Millington says certain aspects of the facility can be upgraded and new opportunities explored. “There’s always the opportunity to get more production through our dryer in the summertime,” she says. If Scotia can increase the amount of fiber coming in, the addition of another hammermill or pelletizer would be considered. The company is also exploring feedstock supply prospects. Millington says getting more fiber at a reasonable price has been challenging. Just this year, Scotia began taking fence posts from an area provider and is looking at a potential nearby supplier to provide a small amount of hardwood shavings. “We’re trying to be innovative with our neighbors to figure out ways to get right fiber to the right place,” Millington says.
Right now, capital is being driven into investigating what the fiber basket will be on an ongoing basis, storage capacity and more. Late next year, Viridis plans to roll out some major upgrades and a capital plan for Scotia Atlantic Biomass. Millington’s portrayal of Scotia as a constant improvement facility, delivered on that label, making significant progress since start-up. “My management team, the head of maintenance and the head of the mill have been really instrumental in getting us to where we are and having quite a turnaround at this facility.”
Author: Katie Fletcher
Associate Editor, Biomass Magazine