Breaking into the biomass arena

Enviva has a biomass presence in two US ports. Credit: Enviva Enviva has a biomass presence in two US ports. Credit: Enviva

Martin Rushmere finds that more ports and terminals are dipping into biomass cargo handling

With Canada and the US accounting for between 60% and 75% of world biomass exports, ports are taking a hard look at the choice between coal and renewable goods that are largely considered to be kinder to the environment.

These exports are overwhelmingly geared to wood pellets and similar products. And their markets/customers are mostly in power generation and mostly in Europe and the UK (Drax being the most notable).

European industrial wood pellet demand is expected to grow to 19m tons by 2021, a 14% annual growth rate. Japan is targeting 6.0 to 7.5 gigawatts of biomass- fired generation capacity by 2030.

With demand growing in America and abroad, producers and exporters are bullish on expansion plans. The world’s biggest pellet producer, Enviva, whose current production represents approximately 14% of current global utility-grade wood pellet production capacity, is spending up to $525m in a joint venture with John Hancock Life Insurance Company on production plants and deep-water marine terminals to meet growing Asian and European demand.

For ports, the Japanese/Asian angle is most interesting. Enviva is keeping a low public profile about its plans but in conference calls with investors has confirmed its intention to go ahead with a terminal at Pascagoula, Mississippi. This was first announced in 2013 but there has been little progress since. Even less information is available about a second proposed terminal, at Jacksonville, which is said to be “under assessment”.

These would complement its wholly-owned terminals at Wilmington, North Carolina, and Chesapeake, Virginia, each with 90,000 tonnes of capacity in dome storage. Two smaller storage/terminal sites are owned by third parties at Mobile, Alabama and Florida’s Panama City.

Canadian terminal operator and specialist cargo handler, Logistec, is concentrating on its Brunswick, Georgia pellet terminal.

Canadian advantage

Total US exports of pellets are almost twice those of Canada, but Canada has a logistic advantage with export terminals on the east and west coasts. US shipments for Asia go through the Panama Canal.

No US West Coast ports are building biomass terminals and there are apparently no plans to do so.

It would seem this is an opportunity waiting to be exploited, but industry analysts caution that the physical properties of pellets have to be considered carefully and there is an inherent safety danger in the form of fire. Added to this is the dust hazard that can be almost overpowering if pellets are not handled properly – a huge consideration for facilities near commercial and residential areas. Both Enviva and Logistec have been hit by fires in the past four years.

Dr Mi-Rong Wu, consultant with TBA in Delft, says storage and transport of biomass have to be considered. In a presentation to the Association of Bulk Terminal Operators, she said: “Storage facilities for solid biomass require large areas as a result of their low bulk density and energy content and such provisions can be realised either at the waterside terminals or more inland, at the premises of the power station (end user).

“To have the same energy output as coal, up to eight times more volume of solid biomass is required. A common demand figure for a power station unit will be about three million tonnes of wood pellets per year and when the choice comes to wood chips, even 4m-4.5m tonnes may be required.

“Due to the low bulk density, the lower energy content, and the need for an uninterrupted supply, power stations typically ask for storage capacities of about 100,000 tonnes which requires covered storage of around 200,000 cubic metres (wood pellets). In addition, because of their lower bulk density, more volume of solid biomass needs to be stored. With the same stacking method, 1.3 times more land is needed (lower volumetric performances for biomass),” Dr Wu told the association.

“The storage time of solid biomass should be controlled. Depending on the moisture content of the material, the recommended storage time varies from three weeks (for fresh wood chips) to three months (wood pellets). There is four times more volume of solid biomass required for the same energy output compared with coal.”

Acknowledging these factors, exporters are emphasising versatility and adaptability for other products. Fibreco of Canada is adding agricultural products (grain and lentils), while the port of Belledune in New Brunswick, Canada is considering the use of its pellet conveyor system, used for less than three months a year, for coal as well.

 

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