From Plant to Port

Before being used as fuel at Drax’s U.K. power station, wood pellets make a long journey that the company has fine-tuned.
By David Marks | February 28, 2018

Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, England uses millions of tons of wood pellets every year to generate electricity. A significant proportion of those pellets are produced in the U.S., at its facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Before they can be used to generate electricity, the pellets are transported safely and efficiently across the Atlantic, and by then, they have already undergone a series of carefully planned transport logistics. The initial journey to Drax’s port facility near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, requires both trucks and trains.

The Road Trip
The Amite BioEnergy pellet plant in Gloster, Mississippi, lies roughly 60 miles from Baton Rouge. Given the distance, it was decided that trucks were the best option for moving the pellets from plant to port. “Each truck can carry 25 tons of pellets per load, and the journey takes around 90 minutes–accounting for the trucks slowing down when they pass through urban areas. It means that one driver can do three trips on any given day,” says Lloyd Wedblad, head of logistics at Drax Biomass.

Morehouse BioEnergy in Bastrop, Louisiana, presented a slightly more challenging scenario, as the team needed to find a quick and economical way to transport pellets 221 miles to the port. A solution was found in the region’s robust rail infrastructure, which includes the Arkansas Louisiana Mississippi railroad. Opened in 1908, the ALM line runs from the City of Monroe, Louisiana, to Bastrop, just south of the Arkansas state line.

The trains leaving Morehouse BioEnergy were slightly modified closed-top grain cars rather than open-top coal cars to protect pellets from the elements. “The cars are designed to each carry 286,000 pounds,” Wedblad says. “But because of local weight limits on bridges and sections of track along the route, we’re limited to hauling 263,000 pounds per car. That’s still a lot of pellets.”

Once the train arrives at the port, it takes around 24 hours to unload before making the 20-hour return journey to Bastrop. One train departs roughly every three days, so over 110 trains are required each year to move this facility’s pellets to the port.

Morehouse BioEnergy is currently served by 45 car-length trains, but this will soon change, in a big way. A new chambering yard planned for the port will allow the team to begin shipping pellets on 80-car length unit trains, each nearly a mile long and capable of carrying almost double the volume of current trains. Unit trains will deliver major fuel and cost savings to Morehouse BioEnergy and improve Drax Biomass’s overall supply chain efficiency. A new rail system will also be utilized for the company’s newest facility, LaSalle BioEnergy, in Urania, Louisiana.

Preparing for the Overseas Journey
The final stage of the pellets’ journey begins along the Mississippi River at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. As the pellet-laden trucks arrive from Amite, they drive into customized bays where they unload their cargo onto a conveyor belt in roughly six minutes before returning to the Gloster facility.
When a train arrives at the port, it is divided into several shorter, car-lengths before each is routed into an unloading facility. The cars deposit their cargo onto a separate conveyer belt, which, like the belt under the truck bays, moves the pellets into one of the port’s two 40,000-metric ton storage domes.

Once the domes contain enough volume, a cargo vessel arrives for the transatlantic journey to the U.K. Yet another conveyor belt moves the pellets from the domes to the dockside shiploader, which loads each cargo hold until the vessel is ready to sail.

“The emissions associated with each stage of the journey is tracked to ensure the Drax Group supply chain is as low-carbon as possible,” says Pete Madden, president and CEO of Drax Biomass. “Even with all supply chain emissions considered, the power generated thousands of miles away at the Drax Power Station in the U.K. has a carbon emissions profile that is 80 percent lower than coal. This journey from forest to port is growing more and more efficient and sustainable.”

Author: David Marks
Director of Policy and Communications, Drax Biomass