Southern Discomfort

To date, 29 U.S. states and the nation's capitol have adapted renewable energy standards, and the possibility of a national mandate is looming. The Southeast, however, seems to be lagging behind the rest of the country in implementing renewable energy policies.
By Anna Austin
For the past several years, many states in the Southeast have repeatedly failed to pass any type of renewable electricity mandate. Meanwhile, states in other regions continue to refine and polish their renewable energy standards (RES) while becoming home to and enjoying the benefits of new clean energy projects.

Just scratching the surface, since 2007 Delaware has doubled its RES, Minnesota and Maryland have upped their originals, and Colorado-the first state to adopt an RES in 2004-recently raised its initial RES of 20 percent by 2020 to 30 percent by 2020, becoming the most ambitious state in the country next to Maine.

To date, North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast to have passed a mandatory RES-13 percent by 2021 with a tight cap on biomass-and like North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah, Virginia has implemented a voluntary RES, which most green energy advocates consider a meager solution.

In a few states, especially those that lack an RES such as Massachusetts and New Mexico, some biomass power projects are having difficulty with opposition groups that are convinced that biomass is worse than coal and are working on statewide bans (see "Facing the Vocal Opposition" on page 58).

In the aftermath of failed projects or RES legislation, coal-devouring utilities are commonly blamed, when in fact, floundering RES legislation seems to stem from one common denominator-a misunderstanding of biomass, whether it be technology, environmental effects or resource use/abundance. John Bonitz, farm outreach and policy advocate for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says biomass opponents are generally a minority of people who misunderstand the technology, and their seemingly dominant presence is largely colored by the media.

Resource Reassurance

As far as labeling the South as lacking in necessary resources goes, Bonitz says, that isn't so. "We're quite adamant that the Southeast has no shortage of renewable energy resources, and utilities that continue to try to assert that the sun doesn't shine, the wind doesn't blow and we can't grow anything in the Southeast are not helping-in fact they are hindering-economic development and the recovery of our economy in the Southeast," he says.

In 2009, SACE performed an in-depth study, "Southern Solutions Report for a National Renewable Energy Standard," which evaluated the potential for renewable energy generation, as well as the effects a national RES would have on the Southeast. The analysis showed that states in the region have enough bioenergy, solar, wind (onshore and offshore), hydro-electric and geothermal resources to meet an RES of 25 percent by 2025, and that the Southeast has sufficient renewable energy resources to meet high interim targets, such as 20 percent by 2020. The Union of Concerned Scientists shared and supported SACE's findings, and last year the groups jointly circulated a letter urging legislators to stop dismissing the South's renewable resources and to start supporting policies such as an RES. More than 3,200 community leaders, business people and concerned citizens signed the letter.

As for the role of woody biomass in an ideal RES scenario, regional power production from biomass even at the highest levels outlined in the study's estimates would require annual harvests of no more than 0.2 percent of forest resources. A common argument against an RES or biomass power projects, in general, is that there aren't enough sustainable wood resources to maintain biomass energy operations. At the same time, however, some companies-not just in the South but also in other regions-are exporting wood resources overseas for energy production, because of attractive prices and a bustling market fueled by Europe's mandatory energy goals. For example, Georgia Biomass in Waycross, Ga., recently reported that it will have the capacity to produce 750,000 tons of wood pellets per year from local timber sources, but will ship the pellets from the port in Savannah, Ga., to Europe for use in biomass power plants owned by German utility RWE Innogy. Green Circle Bioenergy Inc., a 560,000-ton per year wood pellet plant in Cottondale, Fla., exports its product to Europe as well.

"The basic problem with opposition to a state RPS (renewable portfolio standard) is that it is economically self-defeating," Bonitz says. "Due to market trends, much of the biomass will be consumed one way or another-in fact, much of it is already being exported to Europe as a result of their greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy goals. With a strong RPS, these pellets could help Florida reduce imports of fossil energy."

Susan Glickman, consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Energy Group and SACE, says states that don't have an RES aren't being courted by biomass power project developers and are missing out on significant revenue opportunities. "With biomass plants, jobs stay very close, within a 45- to 65-mile radius, so the money/energy dollars stay close," she says. "In Florida right now, 80 cents out of every energy dollar goes out of state. There's a big advantage with biomass-it keeps the energy dollars and jobs closer to home. We've done some comparisons of jobs broken down per megawatt hour. Biomass is about nine or 10 jobs per megawatt hour, nuclear power creates a third of the jobs per megawatt hour."

According to a recently released study commissioned by RES-Alliance for Jobs, a national RES of 25 percent by 2025 would create about 274,000 more renewable energy jobs and a cumulative 2.36 million job years of work compared with no national policy. It also indicated that Southeastern states such as Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida can benefit from substantial biomass and municipal solid waste-to-energy projects. Until a national RES is passed, however, a state can opt in or out as it chooses and may miss out on countless economic opportunities.

Curt Gleeson, Community Power Initiative project director for Public Policy Virginia, adds that many developers won't choose to build in a state without an RES because of the lack of certainty. "Not without a long-term commitment by the state-without saying ‘this [renewable energy] is something we're going to be doing'-their investment dollars probably won't come here," he says.

No Certainty, No Consideration

Gleeson says his suspicions have been confirmed through various conversations with venture capital firms and project developers that have told him they wouldn't even consider projects in states such as Virginia that don't have renewable energy mandates.

In Virginia, RES legislation has been introduced numerous times over the past several years, but hasn't gotten anywhere. "Dominion Power and Appalachian Power have a fair amount of influence in Richmond and that's a big hurdle," Gleeson says. "I also think more broadly, it's the same old thing, there's lots of sun out west, lots of hydro other places, lots of corn in the Midwest, but none of that here. There's just a general lack of understanding of what kind of renewable energy you could have in Virginia or the Southeast."

That's on top of the fact that there is coal in parts of Virginia, Gleeson adds. "It's pretty inconsequential in terms of power generation; there are lots of metals in it and it's only in a couple of counties," he says. "Yet, it's part of the hindrance and I think there is a sense of identification with it that is hard to get people to sway from."

In February, the Dendron, Va., town council approved rezoning for a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant that when built would be the largest in Virginia, and already forces have mobilized to try to stop it. "We met with Old Dominion [Electric Cooperative], not to tell them not to build the plant, but to tell them if they have a demand for power, to look at biomass," Gleeson says. "We had a fruitful discussion. Their concerns were whether the feedstock is reliable and if the technology is there. The answer is yes, but these are fair questions. We also met with those against the coal plant and they've gotten to the point where they believe biomass should be the replacement. This is a broad coalition of environmental folks who, maybe a year or two ago, wouldn't have supported biomass."

Generally being a conservative state, environmental arguments in Virginia typically don't go very far, according to Gleeson. "Beyond utility objections, there are lots of other small hurdles and that's what we're working on-reaching out to constituencies that normally wouldn't embrace an environmental cause, but would embrace an economic development cause, especially in southern Virginia where tobacco is gone, soybeans are down, corn is a mess and young farmers are leaving. We're going into these regions and meeting with farmers who generally seem to be very interested in growing and selling fuel crops. This [RES] is how we can make this happen."

Despite the fingerprints of southern utilities on failed RES bills, their efforts may eventually be trumped by a national RES, with which all states would be forced to comply. Though some utilities declare customers would see considerable rate increases in complying with such a bill, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis, a 25 percent RES would eventually save consumers $64.3 billion by 2025 and $95.5 billion by 2030 in their electricity and natural gas bills.

Pending National RES

In June 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy Security Act, also known as Waxman-Markey, which would set a national RES of 20 percent by 2020 and allow up to 8 percent of the standard to be met through energy efficiency improvements. Also in June, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, which has a target of 15 percent by 2021 and allows up to 4 percent of the standard to be met through energy efficiency improvements.

Most RES supporters, which include groups from all alternative energy industries and environmental organizations, are hopeful that mandatory national RES legislation will be passed in 2010. "Mandatory is kind of a toxic word to people, but by definition a better standard would be mandatory," Gleeson says. However, until a national RES is passed, understanding biomass and its potential is key to acceptance by residents in states unfamiliar with or favorable toward the technology.

"There are a lot of complexities; it's not a simple technology to grasp and understand," Bonitz points out. Glickman adds that it in the Southeast, it's largely a political issue. "In the South, you have the status quo or old way of doing things, which was built around a centralized business model for the delivery of energy," she says. "There's no way to get around the need to transition, but the sooner we move forward, the cheaper it's going to be for people to shift gears in a big way. The country is in a transition phase, and unfortunately the Southeast is the slowest to move."

Anna Austin is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at or (701) 738-4968.