Homegrown Biomass: A Great Alternative Energy

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The following guest commentary comes from Tim Echols, Vice-Chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Echols was re-elected to another six-year term in November, 2016. In July of last year, PACE expressed its support of the wood energy industry as an opportunity for energy export.

This summer Georgia will see the State’s largest renewable energy plant begin full-scale operation in Albany.  Perhaps surprisingly to many, it is not solar or wind, but another important Georgia natural resource—homegrown Georgia biomass.  Here is why it matters.

Using bio-mass is part of a plan by our Georgia Public Service Commission and Georgia Power to keep a diversified renewable energy policy alive and well in Georgia.   This plant represents years of planning and deadline extensions in an effort to utilize pine trees and forest debris in generating electricity.

Forestry in Georgia is the picture of sustainability with 26 million acres of trees planted, grown, harvested and replanted. Utilizing Georgia biomass is smart for a number of reasons.

First, it offers a hedge against rising electric rates that use natural gas, coal and uranium—all commodities that have price fluctuation.  Second, using a homegrown resource like Georgia biomass provides clean-tech job opportunities in Georgia for plant operators, truck drivers and logging crews. Third, because those semi-trucks loaded with chips arrive around the clock, biomass provides a steady supply of electricity whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Finally, biomass preserves Georgia’s environment while supporting Georgia’s rural forests and farms.

It was no easy thing to bring about this biomass power plant. This gigantic Albany energy plant came together through a unique public/private collaboration that brought about the cooperation of no less than six key entities participating in various outputs from the co-generation project.

This dream team includes Georgia Power Company, Sterling Energy Assets, Procter and Gamble, Constellation New Energy, the Marine Base, and our agency, the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Georgia Power is of course known to everyone. Sterling Energy Assets is Georgia’s largest renewable energy supplier and developer of renewable energy plants. Procter and Gamble, a well-known name, hosts the plant on their property, and utilizes part of the steam. The US Marine Logistics Base in Albany agreed to buy the remainder of the steam from the Albany plant—important because having steam users greatly increases the thermal efficiency of the plant and reduces or eliminates the need for use of fossil fuels. Constellation New Energy (a division of Exelon) was recruited by Sterling Energy Assets to the deal to finance, build, own and operate the Albany plant.  Each of these played a critical role.

In addition to the completion of the Albany biomass plant, other biomass projects have entered service or on the drawing board.  Green Power Solutions worked with West Rock in Dublin to build a 30MW project which local leaders say saved the jobs of 300 people; International Paper built a facility on the Flint River near Montezuma at their diaper fluff plant; And on the drawing board is another Sterling biomass plant, in Franklin County, with future owner/operator Georgia Renewable Power, LLC.

With all the new solar power plants being constructed, these biomass plants are important to increase the stability and reliability of Georgia’s electric grid, and they help us preserve Georgia’s rural forests by keeping employment at a high level in the forestry industry and providing long-term economic growth for Georgia’s rural timber farmers.

As we move forward in this new energy economy, expect to see solar on landfills with biogas generation like that of Republic Waste Services in Gwinnett County. Solar and thermal energy combinations may be further combined with generation from alternative biofuels, including construction waste and debris, landfill material, animal waste to energy, and gasification technology.  The possibilities seem endless.

So the next time you wonder, “What is the State’s policy on renewable energy?” Remember it is not just solar.  The Georgia Public Service Commission is busy building a robust renewable energy industry that will bring long-term economic health to the rural forests and farmland, urban and suburban Georgia and help lower electric rates for all.