Pellet plant raises ‘green’ opportunities in South Africa

December 31, 2010

There are power plants and heating plants in Europe running on 'green' fuel shipped all the way from South Africa. Jean Bech-Nielsen, Chief Operating Officer of the Biotech Fuels pellet plant in Howick, where the pellets are manufactured, knows it's crazy, but there simply isn't a market in South Africa – yet.

Pellet plant at Biotech Fuels
Chief Operating Officer Jean Bech-Nielsen (left) and Logistics Manager Haico Hackland at the Biotech Fuels pellet plant in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal.


Jean believes that South Africans need to scale down their thinking to develop small, local power plants run on 'green' fuel derived from locally sourced biomass. Hospitals, factories, large housing developments, villages and small towns could be generating their own heat and power. The technology is available and even at these small scales it is efficient, he says.

Wood pellets are most effective in producing Combined Heat and Power (CHP) and it is 40% cheaper to produce hot water, steam and heat by using wood pellets as a fuel compared to any other sustainable fuel, or fossil based fuel such as electricity. So it is just a matter of time before a local South African market for wood pellets develops. Until then, the Biotech Fuels pellet plant in Howick will continue to export the bulk of the industrial pellets that they produce half way around the world to Europe where the demand is high.

The Biotech Fuels plant was established in 2005. It is one of four pellet plants operated by different companies in South Africa. The other plants are at Sabie, Richards Bay and Coega near Port Elizabeth.

The key to a successful pellet plant is access to raw materials. That's why the plant was established in Howick, in the timber belt of the KZN midlands. The Biotech Fuels logistics team collects sawdust, slats and block 'waste' from within the Howick district.

The standard industrial pellet produced by Biotech Fuels is 6 to 8 mm in length, with a moisture content of around 8% and ash content of 1.5%. The calorific value is 4.7 to 4.9 mega watts per ton pellets, or 17 mega joules per kilo. (Ash and water content reduces calorific value.)

The material is pelletised for ease of handling and transport. One cubic metre of pellets weighs 650 kgs – by way of comparison, one cube of sawdust weighs 220 - 260 kgs. Roughly two tons of sawdust makes one ton of pellets.

The current price of pellets in Europe is the same as it was in 2004, due largely to the effects of the recession on the markets. However the weather forecasters are expecting the coldest winter in a century, which bodes well for the demand for pellets.

Published in December 2010

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