Converting units at Drax from coal to biomass meant changing not only the fuel but also the traditions at the power plant, says Peter Emery. He tells John McKenna why a team of people from unconventional backgrounds helped make the project a success.
The rise in digital media and subsequent decline in newsprint is, according to Drax production manager Peter Emery, good news for renewable energy in this country.
This might seem like an odd leap to make, but three years into developing Drax’s £700 million conversion of six 645MW coal-fired units into biomass-burning facilities, Emery is now a man used to looking at things from a different perspective.
“There’s no doubt one of the first things we realised was that this isn’t a simple fuel switch,” says Emery.
So far Drax has converted one unit, which is currently running at 630MW and began operating in April last year, with conversion of the second and third units planned for 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Emery says his past experience at ExxonMobil (see Biography) played a key role in informing how he and his team approached the project.
“One of the things in petrochemicals that you are used to is looking at the material you are handling and looking at the risks and dangers,” he says.
Emery’s team’s assessment of biomass as a replacement fuel ranged far and wide, from carrying out Hazard and Operability Studies (HAZOPS) of the processes involved, to evaluating macroeconomic factors affecting the supply chain of raw material.
Which is where digital media and newsprint comes in: Drax’s main biomass feedstock is wood pellets imported from North America.
Drax ships it across the Atlantic because it is in Canada and the US that the cheapest source of wood pellets can be found for two very different reasons.
“A lot of the pellets are produced in British Columbia, where a lot of the forest has been killed by forest pine beetle and are going to waste, creating a good source of cost-effective biomass,” he says.
“Meanwhile in the US there has been a dropping in demand from the pulp and paper industry because of the decline in newsprint. A lot of [US commercial forestry companies] haven’t got enough demand and we are filling that gap. It’s a special set of circumstances that means there is an excess of supply that we can process with economies of scale and good rail and port facilities.”
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