Pellets are big business in west Alabama.
Drax has already opened its more than $100 million plant in Demopolis in Marengo County, and Enviva has a $250 million facility under construction at the Port of Epes in Sumter County, both built to turn sawdust, chips and shavings into wood pellets used to generate renewable energy.
For Drax, based in the U.K., it’s the company’s second pellet plant in Alabama, joining one in Aliceville. Drax has a 90% stake in Alabama Pellets. Two Rivers Lumber Co. owns the remaining 10%.
Enviva, based in Maryland, says all systems are go for its Sumter County plant after delays because of the pandemic and another venture, just finished, in Lucedale, Mississippi.
When Drax’s Demopolis pellet mill is at full capacity, it produces 360,000 metric tons of sustainable biomass pellets a year, says Matt White, executive vice president, pellet operations, for Drax.
“The pellets are made using sawmill residues … from the neighboring Two Rivers Lumber Co. sawmill,” he says.
Some of those pellets will go to Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire in the U.K., where Drax produces 12% of the U.K.’s renewable electricity, White says. “We also supply biomass to customers in Europe and Asia who use it to decarbonize the heat and power they produce,” he says.
That customer base will continue to grow, according to White.
“Sustainable biomass is increasingly attractive to governments and industries around the world,” he says. “That’s because it supports energy security, as it is a reliable, renewable power source and, in conjunction with carbon capture and storage technology, it can permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere, helping the world reach its climate targets.”
The process used in North Yorkshire is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, and Drax is “exploring options for developing BECCS in the U.S.,” White says.
“The versatility of sustainable biomass doesn’t end with BECCS,” he adds. “There’s scope in the future for biomass to support the decarbonization of a number of sectors, including heavy industry, plastics and aviation.”
During construction, the Drax project employed around 350 people, and 60 continuing jobs have been created now that the plant is open. The company also has a commitment to the Demopolis community.
“We were already able to start that journey with a $10,000 donation to the Demopolis City Schools Foundation when we opened the plant,” White says. “I look forward to Drax continuing its work with the local community, as we do in other locations where we operate.”
A 30-minute drive west from Demopolis, Enviva is building its pellet plant at the Port of Epes Industrial Park.
“Enviva primarily exports its wood pellets … to power utilities in the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan, enabling them to reduce their carbon footprint by more than 85% on a lifecycle basis,” says Rick Frederick, Enviva’s community relations manager for the Gulf region.
Alabama will contribute to that effort in a couple of years. Now that the company has completed its Lucedale facility, construction will begin soon in Epes. The plant will be in service by 2023 and will be at full capacity by the end of 2024, Frederick says.
“The proposed plant’s planned permitted capacity is expected to be 1.1 million metric tons of wood pellets per year,” he says. “Once complete, Enviva’s wood pellet production plant in Epes will be the largest wood pellet production plant in the world.”
The plant will create about 100 direct local jobs.
“In addition … the plant will create more than 250 indirect jobs in the region to include construction jobs,” Frederick says. “Once operational, the plant would support about 350 jobs, including in adjacent industries such as logging and trucking.”
Enviva, too, is involved in the communities where it is located, and Frederick says the company has already engaged with a number of community groups and nonprofits, including the community center, University Charter School, Children of the Village Food Pantry, Boys and Girls Club and Sumter County Board of Education.
Enviva harvests its wood sustainably, working hard to “keep forests as forests,” according to Frederick.
“Forests in the Epes region are being harvested sustainably,” he says. “These forests are growing faster than they are being logged. Projections indicate that this trend will continue and that the volume of timber in the forests is expected to increase every year, even with the addition of the Epes plant in the region.”
The Enviva plants are among the most environmentally controlled plants in the U.S., Frederick says.
“We lead the industry on air emissions controls by investing, installing and operating state-of-the-art, industry-proven air emissions control technology,” he says.
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama.
This article appeared in the June 2022 issue of Business Alabama.