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Future proofing the “Spirit of Speyside”

April 2013 saw the accreditation of a landmark bioenergy project in the Scotch whisky world when “The Duke of Rothesay”, aka HRH Prince of Wales, officially opened the GBP 60.5 million (≈ EUR 71.45 million) Helius CoRDe plant. Located in Rothes in the heart of Speyside, this “blended biomass” combined heat and power (CHP) plant co-located with a new Pot Ale Syrup facility, embodies the true “Spirit of Speyside”.

A pail of Pot Ale Syrup an animal protein supplement, the product from pot ale processing facility. Using steam and power from the CHP it can turn 430 000 tonnes pot ale into 44 000 tonnes “Spey Syrup” per year. It doesn’t taste half bad either.

A pail of Pot Ale Syrup an animal protein supplement, the product from pot ale processing facility. Using steam and power from the CHP (left, photo courtesy Andrew Wood) it can turn 430 000 tonnes pot ale into 44 000 tonnes “Spey Syrup” per year. It doesn’t taste half bad either.

Anyone who has travelled in Scotland will have noted how there are distilleries scattered throughout. According to the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) there are 108 distilleries licensed to produce Scotch. Speyside, a small region in the north-eastern part of the Highlands, is perhaps the world’s most distillery dense region with around 50 whisky distilleries.

Scotch is big business. Figures from the SWA show that the industry generates over GBP 4 billion (≈ EUR 4.72 billion) in export earnings, accounting for 25 percent of the UK’s food and drink exports. Furthermore, about GBP 1 billion (≈ EUR 1.18 billion) is invested annually across the supply chain by the industry.

In June 2009 the SWA launched its Environmental Strategy for whisky distillers. It was hailed as the “most ambitious voluntary, environmental sustainability strategy of any single UK manufacturing sector.” It applies specifically whisky distilleries and targets energy, water and materials use. Collectively the industry is committed to sourcing 20 percent of its primary energy needs from non-fossil sources by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

In 2008 only 3 percent of its primary energy supply came from non-fossil sources. This is good news for project developers like Helius Energy plc since process heat accounts for almost 80 percent of the industry’s primary energy demand. The latest SWE report with 2012 figures showed that non-fossil primary energy sources had increased over fivefold to 16 percent.

Valuable by-products

Whisky production generates two important by-products, draff and pot ale, often used to produce a finished animal feed product known as Distillers Dark Grains (DDG). The Combination of Rothes Distillers Limited, CoRD, minority shareholders in Helius CoRDe, has been processing by-products from the Speyside whisky industry for over 100 years. Set up as a joint venture in 1904 to serve the five distilleries then operating in Rothes, CoRD specialised in the drying and processing of excess pot ale into fertiliser cake.

In 1970 CoRD opened its first joint processing plant in Rothes to produce DDG pellets and a second plant was added in 1974. The site could process up to 90 000 tonnes of draff and 300 000 tonnes of pot ale per annum. The remaining effluent from the processing plant was treated at a CoRD owned wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) on a nearby site. CoRD also provides effluent treatment service on behalf of local distilleries at the WWTP.

Central figure

–Helius CoRDe is a joint venture created by Helius Energy plc, Rabo Project Equity BV (equity investment arm of Rabobank) and CoRD to develop, build, own and operate a biomass combined heat and power plant and a new processing plant to produce pot ale syrup, a high protein liquid animal feed product, here Rothes, said Andrew Wood, plant manager for Helius CoRDe.

Andrew Wood is a central figure in the project. Previously he was with project developers Helius Energy plc and was Project Manager for the original planning design, contract negotiation and subsequently construction of the plant.

–Like a well-aged whisky, the project goes back to 2005 when Helius Energy approached CoRD with an idea about using draff as a biomass fuel.

Long-term cost control

–The key issue for CoRD was to get long-term cost control over its by-products processing and improve its environmental footprint, said Wood.

The old steam evaporators used gas and rising fuel costs were a major concern. The plant was also at full capacity and a bottleneck for whisky production.

–We looked as far as membrane technology instead of a steam evaporator to separate the solids, told Wood, but the finances didn’t stack up. With an extra half Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) for combined heat and power (CHP) in the balance, it was back to steam evaporation. With only a 1.2 ha space available it was decided to reassess the whole premise of the project to come up with what you see today, a woodchip and draff fuelled CHP and new evaporator process plant explained Wood.

Danish turn-key supplier

A new tender was issued and the technology supply contract for the CHP was awarded to the Danish company Aalborg Energie Technik (AET), an independent engineering and contracting company that supply biomass-fired boiler plants in the 25 to 170 MW thermal size range.

The Helius CoRDe biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plant with plant manager Andrew Wood (right) highlighting one of several visual inspection details around the plant.

The Helius CoRDe biomass combined heat and power (CHP) plant with plant manager Andrew Wood (right) highlighting one of several visual inspection details around the plant.

It is AET’s first biomass project in Scotland. As a turnkey supplier, AET designed, supplied, constructed and commissioned essentially the entire combined heat and power plant exclusive the on-site civil works, a deal worth approximately GBP 30 million (≈ EUR 35.43 million) or roughly half the entire Helius CoRDe project.

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