Late Friday, PACE concluded the final portion of its 2016 Energy Tour as the Megan Parker, a motor vessel operated by Parker Towing, returned to its dock in Northport, Alabama. A twenty-person contingent of regulators, elected officials, staffers, and other energy leaders had just seen firsthand how much of America’s coal resources travel along America’s waterways. Just minutes after the tour departed, that same vessel would push coal barges down the Black Warrior River toward their destination at McDuffie Coal Terminal in Mobile, the nation’s second largest coal terminal. Meanwhile, other vessels in the Parker Towing fleet undertook similar errands, working along the region’s waterways to bring energy products and other goods to those who need them.
Earlier in the day, some tour participants descended 175 stories underground to see Warrior Met Coal Mine #7 firsthand, a trip the New York Times calls “the longest elevator ride in the country”. No coal mine in the U.S. is deeper. Others visited Mine #4, another mine that, like #7, produces some of the finest metallurgical coal in the world. Steel producers around the world covet the metallurgical coal mined around the clock at Alabama mines for its ability to produce extremely high temperatures.
Tour Group At Warrior Met Coal
The key is that tour participants aren’t just told about the mining process. They undergo an hour of safety training, wear the same heavy gear as the mine workers, and stand within just a few yards of an incredibly powerful long wall machine that harvests tons of coal every minute from far beneath the surface. Those who see this process firsthand emerge to the surface different than they went down in more ways than one. While it may be easy to clean the smudges on their faces, it’s not as easy to lose the appreciation they gained for the men and women who do this difficult, and all too often unrecognized, job. The men and women who descend far beneath the surface every day to mine the resources that have taken America to such great heights.
The same type of men and women work at Nucor Steel in Birmingham and at Miller Steam Plant northwest of the city, facilities visited by the group on Thursday. At Nucor, tour participants had a chance to see the steel production process up close. American energy was in action, helping to heat recycled metal products to thousands of degrees so that they can ultimately gain new life as high quality steel products. General Manager Franky Griggs explained to the group how Nucor has evolved its processes to be more energy efficient, helping the company to compete with overseas steel producers.
At Miller Steam Plant, a facility operated by Alabama Power Company and owned in part by PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, the group saw environmental control technology up close. Technology that reduces emissions from the electricity generation process and produces useful byproducts like gypsum. They saw new techniques aimed at capturing carbon dioxide. All part of an electric generating station that is one of the nation’s most efficient and that produces some of the lowest cost electricity in the world. At dinner on Thursday, attendees met a man who works on a substation construction crew, a critical part of the transmission and distribution grid infrastructure that keeps America’s lights burning. I wrote about the same person, Joey, in my Thanksgiving piece from last year.
All in all, the visits help connect the production of electricity with its consumption. They help connect the process of mining with the transportation sector. The same vessels that take metallurgical coal to the Port of Alabama often bring raw goods back to another Nucor Steel facility visible from our cruise on the Black Warrior River. Mining, transportation, power generation, and heavy electricity consumption are all connected. We tie them together in a two-day period to allow tour participants to see a side of American energy that is often talked about, but rarely seen. We show them in a way that they’re likely never to forget.
This was our third such tour. Our hope each time is that those who journey with us return to their jobs with a fresh outlook on energy policy. We hope they take to heart that there are real facilities that depend on policy makers to do the right thing. Real people behind the scenes depending on policy that pushes America forward instead of holding it back. Real energy locked in the ground that can continue to power American manufacturing and keep us energy independent. Showing those people and places, with the help of companies that generously give us their time, is an important part of our advocacy for an energy future that works for all of us.
When it comes to electricity generation, water use has taken on increasing importance in recent years. Policy makers are beginning to pay greater attention to the connection between water use and the power sector. PACE has followed this issue closely and has spoken regularly to stakeholders on the topic.
On Tuesday, PACE Executive Director Lance Brown presented to the 50th Annual Meeting of the Tennessee River Valley Association. Held in Nashville, the conference brings together stakeholders along the Tennessee River. The group’s executive director, Cline Jones, currently serves as the Chairman of the PACE Board of Directors, underscoring the role that waterways groups have played in PACE’s advocacy. Among PACE’s institutional partners is the Coalition of Alabama Waterways Associations.
At the conference, Brown spoke about current federal regulations that affect electricity generation and that ultimately affect energy commerce along the Tennessee River. Of particular interest is the status of the Clean Power Plan, which continues to threaten the use of coal by utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
On Wednesday, Brown continued his focus on water by speaking to the 3rd Annual Water Management and Economics Conference, hosted by the Troy University Center for Water Resource Economics. The conference’s theme was “Building Sustainable Bridges”.
“PACE continues to play an important role in educating the public and policy makers about the connection between energy policy and water use,” explains Billy Houston, Executive Director of the Tri-Rivers Waterway Development Association. “The presentation was informative and well-received by attendees.”
Other speakers at the 3rd Annual Water Management and Economics Conference included Dr. Bennett Bearden, Director of Water Policy and Law Institute at the University of Alabama; Dr. Nick Tew, Chairman of the Alabama Water Agencies Working Group; Dr. Gail Cowie, Assistant Branch Chief of the Watershed Protection Branch at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division; Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., Chancellor of Troy University; Wynn Fuller, Chief of the Operations Division Mobile District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Bobby Moore, Operations Project Manager of the ACF Rivers Project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Matthew Montz, Environmental Licensing Supervisor of Nuclear Development Affairs for Southern Nuclear Operating Company; and Betty Webb, Executive Director of RiverWay South.
This past July, in the wake of an historic vote by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union, PACE wrote about the role that wood energy from the United States could play in the future of Britain. Not only could wood energy help to satisfy the British need for a low-carbon future, we argued, but an increased focus on wood energy supplies could create thousands of jobs here at home.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
“In Europe, demand for biomass sources like wood pellets has grown in recent years due to carbon emissions mandates instituted by the EU. This has led European nations such as the U.K. to seek out renewable energy sources like carbon-neutral wood energy,” PACE wrote in July. “And while Brexit may limit foreign energy imports to the U.K., the wood energy supply from Alabama and other southeastern states will continue, helping to fuel both British and local stateside economies.”
The good news is that those economic benefits come with environmental benefits too. A responsible approach to the U.S. wood energy industry won’t endanger forests or negatively affect the ecosystem in general. In fact, the opposite is true. Purposing wood for energy increases investment in forest stewardship. A study by Duke University and North Carolina State University shows exactly that; increasing demand by the UK and EU for wood pellets leads to more forests, as well as more investments in healthy forests. That means the use of wood energy is actually protecting the very same areas and regions from which it is typically sourced.
Those potential benefits were illustrated recently by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. In a September letter to British MP Greg Clark, who serves as the U.K. Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Governor Hutchinson explained that a growing wood pellet industry in Arkansas can help the UK achieve its energy and climate goals, as well as increase investments in sustainable forestry in his state. Recently, a wood pellet project in Arkansas led to a $200 million capital investment and the creation of sixty-eight new full-time jobs with an economic benefit from the plant estimated at $77 million each year. Hutchinson also describes the environment benefit of developments like these.
“This industry is important to Arkansas because it provides another incentive to forest landowners to sustainably manage their forests,” Hutchinson explains. “By clearing out lower-grade wood fiber that is smaller, misshapen, or otherwise unmerchantable, higher-value trees for industries like sawtimber are able to grow and thrive…All of this is done in accordance with forestry management best practices and guidelines that have kept the forests in the United States thriving and growing for decades.”
As Hutchinson points out, wood pellet producers can use wood fiber that is currently of little use to produce a beneficial good for our trade partners in Europe. The governor sent a similar letter, underscoring many of the same points, to Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Juncker is the most powerful office holder in the European Union.
“Targets like the European Union’s 20-20-20 plan for renewable energy, carbon reductions and energy efficiency are aggressive, but necessary,” Hutchinson wrote to President Juncker. “I seek to continue to help you achieve those goals by providing sustainable wood energy abroad, which in turn make the precious natural resources in Arkansas flourish for the generations and centuries to come.”
Clearly, as Governor Hutchinson describes in his letters to European officials, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have much to gain from wood energy. From a climate standpoint, British and European leaders can use wood energy from the U.S. to reach their emissions targets. Back home, the new market for wood energy can create jobs and capital investment while helping our forests grow with an eye toward sustainability, health, and value. Let’s hope that more policy makers recognize this reality and continue to support the opportunities that exist for wood energy between American and European partners.