ATLANTA --- Georgia's thousands of acres of pine forests could supply as much as 20 percent of the state's demand for motor fuel. A forest of offshore windmills could fill some of the electricity needs. Still, alternative sources aren't likely to help the state cope with the current spike in energy costs, experts said.
As gasoline prices passed $3.50 per gallon and Georgia Power Co. asked regulators to OK a $222 million boost to cover increases in the cost of fuel it uses to generate electricity, consumers hoped for alternatives. The alternative fuel options in the works, however, won't have a big enough impact, observers said.
"There are a lot of things we can do by 2050, but we're going to be in deep, deep trouble before then," warned Sam Shelton, a former director of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech.
One possible option under consideration is wind.
Mr. Shelton oversaw a study for Georgia Power's parent, The Southern Co., that examined the viability of erecting a series of windmills eight miles off the coast of Savannah, a proposal that won preliminary approval for testing from the federal government. The 300-foot-wide windmills would generate 160 megawatts of power and become the first in the United States located offshore.
Their output, though, is tiny compared to the two 1,100-megawatt nuclear-power units the company and three other Georgia utilities want to build at Plant Vogtle, near Waynesboro, to begin generating in 2016. The four companies signed a deal this month with a consortium to design and construct the plant if state and federal regulators give the green light.
This week, the utilities will submit the plan to state regulators to start that approval process.
Georgia doesn't get enough sun for solar power to be cost-effective, experts said, but what sun the state does get helps grow plenty of pine trees that Mr. Shelton estimates could be turned into ethanol to meet one-fifth of the state's demand for cars and trucks at about a quarter of the production cost of corn-based ethanol.
Two companies are building plants in the state to make ethanol from trees.
Still, production of energy from alternative sources won't lower prices, said Robert Kaufmann, a professor at Boston University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. That's because the eventual depletion of the world's petroleum supply is keeping prices high and alternative-fuel plants need petroleum for some phase of their operation.
"As the price of oil goes up, the price of all the fuels that are required to produce those alternatives goes up as well and pushes the cost of production ever higher," he said. "So, it's kind of like that carrot at the end of the stick.
"Every time you get close to hitting that trigger price (when alternative fuels become cheaper), the trigger price goes up as well because the cost of energy is just such a big component in the cost of these alternatives."