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TimePosted 29/10/2018 00:00:00

France sets the pace with quick-build grinding plants

This week CemNet reported on the inauguration of Cem'In'EU's first grinding plant at Alienor Ciments in Tonneins in the southwest of France. The 0.24Mta plant is one of five modular grinding units that the group intends to build in France in the next few years.

It comes only a couple of months after Ecocem officially opened its 0.75Mta ground granulated blastfurnace slag (GGBS) cement grinding plant in the Port of Dunkirk, from where it will export to the UK and northern Europe.

Ciments d'Atlas (CIMAF group) also began production at its Vracs De l'Estuaire clinker grinding plant in Le Havre in 2016, which was one of the first of this new generation of small grinding plants, built to target specific markets that were previously the preserve of the cement majors. In addition, there is Ciments Kercim, a 0.6Mta grinding plant set up by an independent operator at Nantes-Saint-Nazaire and acquired by Lafarge in 2014 for a reported EUR80m.

Due to the tight control of the market by long-term incumbents and some of the highest cement prices in Europe, France is an attractive market for entrepreneurial businesses. Moreover, start-up operations such as Aliénor Ciments enjoy the advantage of an asset-light model with relatively low investment costs and a highly-strategic location providing access to both economically-sourced clinker and carefully-identified end markets. While they do not always have major capacities, the business model enables them to produce cement at a competitive price compared to the larger integrated plants, which also have the growing challenge – and cost – of reducing their environmental footprints.

Multinationals focus on asset modernisation
Multinationals present in the French market are responding to this increase in competition by streamlining their operations and investing in new equipment.

LafargeHolcim has already reacted to the competition from Ecocem by announcing that it is building a new EUR3m blending facility at Dunkirk Nord to increase the unit's grinding capacity to produce a low-carbon cement. In 2017 the plant was equipped with a Loesche 46.2+2 CS vertical roller mill to grind GGBS and clinker at 105tph. 

A much larger investment is LafargeHolcim's modernisation project at Martres-Tolosane, where a new kiln line and preheater tower are being erected. Furthermore, the company's Val d'Azergues plant is undergoing a three-year upgrade to replace its kiln baghouse, install a new clinker cooler and improve its environmental performance. Alongside these upgrades, LafargeHolcim will have the flexibility to distribute clinker between its factories as it converts old integrated plants into grinding stations.

CRH is similarly investing in France through its Eqiom subsidiary and has put EUR8m into its Lumbres cement plant to help meet European environmental standards. The clinker cooler will be modified so that recovered waste heat will allow the facility to reduce energy consumption and as a result, also lower CO2 emissions. As part of the project, Fives FCB is supervising the removal of a 42.2m section of the Kiln No 5 to enable the installation of the new cooler.

Vicat already operates the strategically-located Cap Vracs grinding plant in southern France, near Marseilles, but in recent months the cement producer has been looking in other directions, with the recent acquisition of Ciplan in Brazil and plans to ramp up capacity in India.

Market response
It is not yet clear how the incumbent players in the region will react to the arrival of Aliénor Ciments. In the past, such a bold move would have demanded a severe reaction from the local players. HeidelbergCement and LafargeHolcim are active in the regional market and while they may be willing to accommodate a small new player, tougher resistance is likely to come from the competing cement importers, including Spain-based Cimencat, which supplies bulk and bagged cement to the region.

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