Drax partners with Solace to manage biomass supply chain

Event-based IT architecture helps energy provider optimise its biomass supply chain and drive greater efficiencies, but questions remain about the fundamental sustainability of biomass as an alternative to coal

UK energy provider Drax is looking to minimise the environmental footprint of its supply chain and energy production by modernising its IT infrastructure through a partnership with software company Solace.

To fulfil its commitment of becoming carbon negative by 2030, Drax has already converted two-thirds of its North Yorkshire power stations to use biomass (a form of bioenergy that uses plant material as fuel to produce electricity or heat) instead of coal, which it is combining with carbon capture and storage technology to limit the amount of CO2 produced.

According to Drax’s website, using bioenergy with carbon capture storage “will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces, creating a negative carbon footprint for the company”.

The “biomass pellets” that Drax uses, which supply the UK with 6% of its electricity, are sourced from three pellet mills owned and operated by the company in the southern US, as well as forests in Canada, Brazil and Europe.

In partnering with Solace, Drax is looking to reduce the environmental impact of its biomass production by making its transportation overseas, and subsequent burning, as efficient as possible.

By using Solace’s “event mesh” software, the energy provider will be able to surface data from across its entire digital estate in real time, which it can then use to dynamically manage demand fluctuations, storage and energy delivery.

The software runs across divisions, on-premise datacentres and public clouds, distributing data between applications and devices so that information can flow quickly throughout the enterprise.

“Having efficient IT infrastructure is key to delivering our purpose of enabling a zero-carbon, lower-cost energy future for our business customers,” said Mark Leonard, director of IT at Drax Group. “Solace’s services have enabled us to improve user experience and drive operational efficiencies – we can access, transform and utilise our data wherever and whenever we want.”

Tom Fairbairn, engineer and supply chain expert at Solace, told Computer Weekly while the processes around burning coal – from mining and shipping to storage and combustion – are well understood at this point, the relatively recent emergence of biomass as an alternative fuel means companies involved in the “forest to furnace” supply chain are still working out how to optimise it. 

“We have been burning coal for centuries,” said Fairbairn. “People understand how to burn coal, and how to optimise the process. They understand how to set the burners and the boilers, what temperature they can expect, how much ash is going to be generated, how much dust and how to handle it. But the parameters around biomass are not well understood.”

He added that, on top of trying to understand the ideal physical conditions for biomass pellets, such as the best moisture or dust content, Drax also needed to manage a supply chain that is much more geographically spread out than those built for coal.

“One of the problems with wood pellets is that their energy density is something like half that of coal, so there’s a lot more movements going on,” said Fairbairn, adding, for example, that a higher moisture content leads to less energy density, which means more train journeys may be needed to get the necessary volume of pellets from ports to power stations.

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“So Drax has got several problems here – they want to optimise the wood pellet production of burning, but they’ve also got to get control of this supply chain as well,” he said.

In order to optimise its entire “forest to furnace” supply chain and minimise the waste produced, both in terms of carbon emissions from shipping and biomass material loss, Drax turned to Solace and its “event mesh” software.

Fairbairn said that while modern supply chains have been designed for “just in time” production, the IT that sits behind it has been Batch-Based, “so you run a report every night and tweak things accordingly”.

Unlike Batch processing – where the data collected and stored is processed at a particular time – the event-based architecture of Solace’s software allows Drax to monitor and react to “events” that affect the business as they occur.

Fairbairn said: “So an event could be: we’ve finished a batch of wood pellet production, wood pellets have arrived in storage, wood pellets have been loaded on the ship. These kind of things are all events and what we do is trigger our IT process based on that event happening.”

He added that in terms of the Drax use case, “events” – such as the moisture content of wood pellets in storage deviating from what the company expected – are distributed to all of the up- and downstream systems that are affected, allowing it to recalibrate the process accordingly in real time.

“Maybe if there’s too much moisture, I need to ship more pellets,” said Fairbairn. “So not only does the manufacturing system need to know about this, but that’s also going to have a ripple in terms of updating logistics to schedule more trains, and our storage optimisation is going to be affected because we’re going to have to increase the amount of shipping that needs to be done to bring the requirements back into line.”

Essentially, this means Drax can react to changes in its supply chain at a much faster rate, with data being surfaced from a range of sources, including internet-of-things sensors, its legacy IT infrastructure, and third parties such as shipping lines.

However, Fairbairn said Drax’s move to an event-based architecture was not a “big bang migration”, and that generally, companies should approach such shifts from a use-case point of view by doing the most important or valuable aspects first.

“Where is my biggest bang for buck?” he added. “You start bringing on events gradually as they are needed and it’s a bit like a network effect. As your use cases come on board and you start moving more events around, more events become available, and so more use cases can start plugging in and receiving those events at a much reduced cost.”

Biomass sustainability

Although Drax’s optimisation of its biomass pellet supply chain can reduce waste by helping the company to gain full visibility of its processes and react much more quickly to unexpected changes, there is a growing scientific consensus that burning biomass is not a renewable alternative to coal.

For example, in a letter sent to US president Joe Biden, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga in February 2021, more than 500 scientists warned each respective regime that burning biomass risked accelerating climate change.

The letter said: “The undersigned scientists and economists commend each of you for the ambitious goals you have announced to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Forest preservation and restoration should be key tools for achieving this goal and simultaneously helping to address our global biodiversity crisis. We urge you not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to generate energy.

“For decades, producers of paper and timber products have generated electricity and heat as by-products from their process wastes. This use does not lead to the additional harvest of wood. In recent years, however, there has been a misguided move to cut down whole trees or to divert large portions of stem wood for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests.

“The result of this additional wood harvest is a large initial increase in carbon emissions, creating a ‘carbon debt’, which increases over time as more trees are harvested for continuing bioenergy use. Regrowing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this carbon debt, but regrowth takes time that the world does not have to solve climate change. As numerous studies have shown, this burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. That is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.”

However, Drax did not respond to Computer Weekly’s questions about the sustainability of its biomass pellet production, including how the company ensures its sourcing does not contribute to biodiversity loss, as well how it is ensuring its biomass harvest and the carbon produced does not exceed the amount of carbon the forests themselves can capture.

Drax claims on its website that using bioenergy with carbon capture storage “will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces”.

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