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New US$15m rail link helps Drax reduce supply chain emissions and biomass costs

In its first year of operation, a new US$15 million rail link has increased the flow of sustainable biomass from one of Drax Group’s US pellet plants to its UK power station, reducing emissions and costs whilst increasing the resilience of the energy company’s supply chain. The new rail link allows Drax to deliver around 7 000 tonnes of pellets to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in each train, compared to just 27 tonnes that could be transported by each truck previously.

The first train arrived at the LaSalle BioEnergy in May 2019. The new US$15 million 8 km rail link allows Drax to deliver around 7 000 tonnes of pellets to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in each train (photo courtesy Rafael Moreno).

The five miles (≈ 8 km) of rail track connects Drax’s LaSalle pellet plant in northern Louisiana to the regional rail network, enabling freight trains to deliver the pellets to the company’s dedicated export facility at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. From there, the pellets are shipped to Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, which supplies around 12 percent of the UK’s renewable electricity.

The new rail spur has been a great success. Since it was commissioned last May it has significantly increased the amount of sustainable biomass we can deliver. It’s also taken thousands of trucks off local roads, unlocking carbon savings and costs in our supply chain as we build a long-term future for the sustainable biomass that provides millions of UK homes and businesses with renewable power. Biomass-generated electricity will be an important part of the global climate change solution. It supports healthy forest growth and biodiversity, while providing reliable, flexible renewable power, and could enable bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS – a vital negative emissions technology that will be crucial to meeting net-zero targets, said Matt White, Senior Vice President, Drax Biomass.

A team of up to 40 contractors worked through two of the wettest Louisiana winters in decades to clear the site, excavating around 180 000 cubic yards (yd3) (≈ 137 610 m3) of dirt to level off the ground and stabilise it before three sets of rail tracks could be laid. The work also included installing conveyors to get the pellets to the new rail loading point.

It was a huge amount of work and the wet winters certainly created some challenges. It’s hard to excavate when everything turns into mud. But the team pulled together and worked through the night to get the track laid and completed so the spur could be commissioned in May last year, said Rafael Moreno, Drax Biomass Associate Director of Engineering.

Cutting supply-chain emissions and costs

The new rail link allows Drax to deliver around 7 000 tonnes of pellets to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge in each train, compared to just 27 tonnes that could be transported by each truck previously. The rail spur at LaSalle is part of Drax’s wider efforts to cut the costs of its biomass by around a third by 2027.

The rail link and other initiatives, including the co-location of a sawmill at the LaSalle site last year, has already contributed to a 3 percent reduction in biomass production costs to US$161 per tonne in 2019 compared with US$166 per tonne in 2018.

Drax acquired the LaSalle BioEnergy plant in Urania in northern Louisiana (LA) in 2017. LaSalle BioEnergy is one of three US pellet plants owned by Drax. The three plants produce a total of 1.5 million tonnes of pellets a year.

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