Storm-tossed forests fuel biomass energy push

Derrek Vaughn | The Valdosta Daily TimesTrees were downed in parts of Valdosta last year during Hurricane Michael.

ATLANTA – Within these thickets are a slew of trees that remain keeled over or snapped in two, just as Hurricane Michael left them nearly 10 months ago. 

In many cases, the high cost to remove the damaged trees and replant them — even with the state offering a tax incentive to do so — is leaving many landowners inclined to let nature continue with what it started last fall.

It’s this slow recovery that prompted Jason Shaw, Georgia’s newest public utility regulator appointed last year by former Gov. Nathan Deal, to nudge his colleagues on the state Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power to expand its capacity to convert trees and other organic material into so-called biomass energy.

At Shaw’s urging, the all-Republican panel unanimously agreed last month to push the state’s largest electric utility to add 50 megawatts of biomass to its long-range energy plan.

Shaw, who hails from Lakeland and represents South Georgia on the commission, pitched his proposal as a way to create jobs in rural Georgia and lessen the economic hit to the state’s prized forestry industry. The October 2018 storm set the industry back about $762.7 million in losses.

“We’ve seen the devastation that occurred to not only those rural communities but to that forestry industry and those landowners in those areas who will never be able to recover what they’ve lost,” Shaw said.

He said commissioners have a duty to focus on this big picture.

“If I were only looking at what it costs to generate power, then I wouldn’t be considering biomass,” Shaw said.

Shaw acknowledged that growing Georgia’s capacity for biomass is no panacea for Hurricane Michael blowing through nearly 2.4 million acres of forestland.

But he argues a larger, more viable biomass industry in South Georgia communities would have put to use at least some of the trees that are left to rot on the ground, slowly emitting carbon.

Millions of tons of existing woody materials, such as bark, limbs and small trees offer no other use, according to the state’s forestry industry.

Georgia Power now purchases more than 335 megawatts of energy from 15 biomass producers, with most of the fuel coming from the forest, according to the utility.

 

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Shaw’s plan to add 50 megawatts of biomass energy only represents a slight increase. By comparison, Georgia Power will add 2,210 megawatts of solar power.

But environmentalists argue any time and resources spent on biomass would be better spent on more solar or wind energy. They also worry the harvest will be more than just tree scraps and storm-pummeled trees that end up feeding these biomass plants.

“It’s just not the reality of what the economics will demand,” said Stephen Stetson with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Once you build this giant broiler that’s designed to burn wood, you have an economic incentive to keep feeding it.”

In the backdrop is a simmering debate over whether forest biomass should be considered a carbon-neutral renewable energy option, as President Donald Trump’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union have deemed it.

A tree can be replanted, but there is a resulting “carbon debt period” even if the replacement tree is immediately planted after another tree is harvested for energy, said Heather Hillaker, an associate attorney who specializes in biomass at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“There is an amount of time that it takes for these new planted trees to grow and reabsorb the amount of carbon that is instantaneously emitted when you burn the wood, and that is on the order of decades to a century,” Hillaker said.

Hillaker calls for a greater sense of urgency, noting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared last year that carbon emissions must be drastically reduced in a little more than a decade in order to avoid the worst effects.

“We’re planting a lot more trees than we’re harvesting,” Shaw said when asked about the environmental concerns. 

More money in the pockets of landowners, including any new money from biomass, means more incentives for them to keep planting air-purifying trees.

Wayne Worsham, a forestry consultant in Seminole County, where Hurricane Michael inflicted widespread damage, said there is little risk of trees being harvested for biomass for one simple reason: There’s better money to be made elsewhere.

The older the tree, the higher value, he said. Trees that can produce larger pieces of lumber fetch a much higher return than smaller trees that are sent off to become paper.

“Biomass is never going to be worth probably what even pulpwood is,” said Worsham, referring to the trees used for paper. “So, a landowner will never, ever have the incentive to start cutting all the trees just because he wants to get biomass.”

Proponents of biomass energy envision several small plants scattered around the state that feed on Georgia-grown wood.

Shaw said placing the new facilities in timber-rich areas of the state, but where they will not compete with existing mills, will be key to keeping the cost of energy generation in check.

Shaw vowed to pull the plug on the project if the costs are too high. Georgia Power and the commission staff are set to return next year with a plan to request proposals from producers.

“We’re still not going to do it if it doesn’t benefit everyone,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to do something that’s going to cause other ratepayers to have to subsidize a certain fragment of our generation needs.”

 

Jill Nolin is a reporter with Georgia Recorder. She is an award-winning former reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times and CNHI. The Georgia Recorder is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on connecting public policies to the stories of the people and communities affected by them.

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