Forest Fuel

With barely 6,200 residents, Warren County lacks many of the amenities that might attract a $400 million industry.

 

But with most of its 181,000 acres covered in trees, it earned a coveted spot on a list of candidates for Oglethorpe Power Corp.'s planned network of biomass electric generating plants.

"We definitely plan to move forward with two plants, and the potential for a third would come later on," said Billy Ussery, Oglethorpe's vice president for member and external relations.

As part of a broadening effort to use renewable energy and reduce pollution, each 100 megawatt plant would burn wood chips and other timber products to operate steam-powered turbines.

The quest for cleaner energy is also being embraced by Georgia Power Co. and the U.S. Energy Department, which operates Savannah River Site.

"In Georgia, the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow enough for significant investments in solar and wind resources," Mr. Ussery said. "So we turned our attention to what is available: trees."

Oglethorpe, based in Tucker, Ga., bills itself as the nation's largest electric cooperative, with assets of more than $5 billion, including a 30 percent stake in Plant Vogtle.

Oglethorpe has acquired purchase options on five potential biomass plant sites, including three parcels in Warren and Washington counties and one each in Appling and Echols counties. Each site is 300 to 400 acres.

Factors used by consultants who chose the sites included transportation opportunities, the availability of wood products and infrastructure for electric transmission lines.

"When you think of a facility of this size, you're looking at a 50- to 75-mile radius around the plant site as the primary location for gathering your fuel," Mr. Ussery said. "We absolutely have to have enough wood."

Despite fluctuations in the economy, the need for clean energy will always exist, he said. Current plans call for bringing the first two plants online in 2014 or 2015.

Georgia, he said, is a virtual "Saudi Arabia of biomass and timber," with tree resources second only to Oregon.

Economic benefits

The growth of biomass generation, he predicted, will provide economic benefits for landowners and timber companies.

"Right now, in tree-cutting operations, they see 10 percent or more of waste from limbs and bark," Mr. Ussery said. "We think timber owners will also see this as a positive, because it would allow using 100 percent of the materials and they could get a little more per tonnage from their timber operations."

Operating biomass sites is expected to generate a market for some wood products that previously had little or no value.

"We don't think people are going to back trucks up and give this stuff to us," Mr. Ussery said.

Projections indicate each plant would purchase about $30 million in fuel and generate about 500 jobs in local economies, in addition to the 40 full-time jobs needed for each plant.

As an electric cooperative, Oglethorpe has filed an application for $800 million to $1 billion in loan financing through the Rural Utilities Service.

The environment

Is it possible to generate electricity, please environmental groups and make money all at the same time?

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy thinks so.

"From our perspective we're very excited about the opportunity for the state to diversify its energy supply because we're currently very dependent on coal and other resources," said Anne Blair, the group's clean diesel and bio-energy program manager.

Other major utilities are laying plans for biomass generation, she said.

One of the primary projects is Georgia Power's planned conversion of Plant Mitchell in Albany, Ga., from coal-fired to biomass generation, she said.

"That process started in December and the next set of hearings is Jan. 20-21 in which the Public Service Commission will hear arguments for their application," she said. "But we think it's a great strategy because it's cleaner than coal."

Although the technology for biomass generation has been available for decades, the growing interest of major utilities can be attributed in part to better technology and the possibility of federal legislation that could affect carbon dioxide emissions, she said.

"Right now there are a few mills that use wood residue to fuel their facilities, but for the most part, there are very few plants in actual operation," Ms. Blair said. "But there are more and more proposals on the table."

Oglethorpe, with each plant projecting 100 megawatts, and Plant Mitchell, a 96-megawatt plant, are among the largest biomass sites in planning stages.

Their success or failure, Ms. Blair predicted, will be determined largely by availability and cost of biomass fuel.

"Wood supply needs to be in a fairly close radius, and these bigger facilities have to look farther out and they have to be very, very smart about where they locate these plants," she said. "Otherwise they can be subject to changes in the cost of diesel and gasoline, which in turn affects their fuel costs."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

GEORGIA BIOMASS ENERGY FACTS

- Most pine biomass production will come from forest industry residues -- tops and branches of Georgia's already harvested pines. Currently, unused biomass represents a large, untapped potential.

- Georgia has 24 million acres of timberland -- the second highest area behind Oregon -- and 92 percent of it is privately owned. Georgia timber owners are growing 22 percent more wood each year than is being removed from forests.

- Georgia's forest industry provides 154,000 jobs and generates $16 billion of industry output, plus $10 billion in indirect benefits.

- The industry is poised to grow by supporting a pine biomass industry with a harvest and transportation infrastructure, and by providing biomass residues. These activities should affect the economy and increase the jobs available in rural communities.

Source: Georgia Pine 2 Energy Coalition

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