Georgia offers support for biomass-to-energy projects

By Erin Voegele | November 02, 2011

The 2011 Southeast Biomass Conference & Tradeshow kicked off in Atlanta today. Nearly 325 professionals and 60 exhibitors are taking part in this year’s event, which has a strong regional focus. Jill Stuckey, director of the Center of Innovation for Energy at the Georgia Environmental and Finance Authority, opened the general session with a keynote address focused on Georgia’s biomass potential and the economic benefits it could bring to her state.

According to Stuckey, there are four main factors driving interest in biomass-to-energy projects in Georgia, including the economy, international mandates, environmental concerns and the need for greater energy security. “I’m in economic development, so when I hear the word ‘jobs,’ my ears perk up,” she said. Georgia ranks second in biomass supply. Only Oregon has more. However, Stuckey notes that Oregon’s forests are largely comprised of redwoods, which are unlikely candidates for energy conversion. While Georgia has vast forest resources, the logging industry and infrastructure within the state is suffering from a 25 percent unemployment rate. “We want to do something about that,” Stuckey said. “We want more forests in Georgia, so we have to find good uses for those trees.”

We grow trees like other states grow commodity crops, Stuckey said. “We plant [trees] in nice little straight rows, and if we want more trees to be planted, we are going to have to find uses for them,” she added. In 1995, foresters in Georgia were harvesting about 51 million tons of biomass. “Today, we are down to 39 million tons…and they are growing 38 percent faster than we utilize them,” she said.

Although forestry is currently Georgia’s primary biomass industry, the state is working to expand its biomass production into other areas. “We are the biomass leader of today,” Stuckey said. “But we want to be the biomass leader of tomorrow.” As industries like pellet manufacturing continue to grow, Stuckey stressed that Georgia is working to develop vast and reliable sources of biomass materials. In addition to looking at the cultivation of faster growing trees, energy crops such as miscanthus are also being considered.

Stuckey also addressed the types of biomass-related industries that are locating in her state, including pellet manufacturers. “I think the future is great for the pellet industry,” Stuckey said, noting that demand from Europe could grow to 30 million tons annually by 2016. By 2026, that number could grow to 100 million to 300 million tons. Stuckey also noted that the price of electricity from biomass is currently high, limiting how much biomass-based electricity utilities are willing to purchase. This could change, however, as torrefaction technologies become more advanced.

The future of drop-in biofuels development also looks strong in Georgia. “The jet fuels industry is really, really pushing in this area,” Stuckey said. “We are working [on about] four biomass-to jet fuel projects right now…We are very excited about that because we have the busiest airport in the world. We utilize about 1 billion gallons of jet fuel in Atlanta every year.”

Stuckey also said those in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries have also shown increased interest in utilizing biomass.

During her presentation, she offered attendees some valuable advice on what not to do when approaching an economic development office, and outlined some of the resources and services her organization can offer to business developers who want to establish biomass-to-energy projects in Georgia.

When approaching an economic development office, Stuckey stressed that a project pitch should focus on what is good about the company and its technology. Don’t spend the entire meeting trashing the technology of others, she said. She also encouraged companies to offer realistic numbers as far as price and output. In addition, she cautioned companies not to make unrealistic promises to give away substantial profits to charity, or deny the fact that they could benefit from assistance offered by the economic development office.

Regarding Stuckey’s organization, she spoke of a unique “one-stop-shop” she has developed to simplify a company’s process of gathering relevant federal and state regulatory information. Professionals representing a wide range of regulatory issues all meet face to face. Companies are scheduled in one-hour intervals to explain their projects to this group of state and local officials, who then answer questions regarding permitting, regulation and any services they might be able to offer to expedite project development. “We want you to get that shove in the ground sooner rather than later,” Stuckey said.