By: Zach Banov
Blanketed in over 24 million acres of forest, Georgia is an ideal source for harvesting a renewable energy source called biomass1. Biomass energy is derived from wood pellets made from low-grade wood waste. The pellets are burned to generate electricity and steam. As the largest source of commercial timberland in the United States, Georgia produces significant logging waste that can used to generate power. Politicians praise domestic biomass as a mechanism to gain energy independence. Currently, Georgia’s biomass pellets are seldom used domestically. Instead, most are exported to Europe, where bioenergy has become a significant energy source due to heavy government subsidies2. While the potential economic and environmental benefits of increasing biomass energy use in Georgia are appealing, some have expressed skepticism towards its large-scale implementation.
In the last decade, Georgia has emerged as a leader in bio-energy research and production. Georgia’s interest in biomass is likely a consequence of its abundant natural resources. Forbes stated that Georgia’s forests, which cover two-thirds of the state, offer the third highest potential for state-wide biomass production in the United States3. Additionally, Georgia’s preexisting infrastructure from its logging industry allowed for a relatively simple transition to biomass production. The availability of resources and pre-existing infrastructure have stimulated investments in research. In 2011, the Herty Advanced Materials and Development Center collaborated with Georgia Southern University to help the state undertake 32 bioenergy projects, second only to California4. That same year Georgia Biomass, LLC. opened one of the largest pellet mills in the world. Though pellet production has steadily increased in Georgia, the state’s biomass energy consumption has remained around 5% since 20015. Throughout the past decade, Georgia has developed into a significant global exporter of biomass pellets though rarely utilizing the energy itself.
As a locally-sourced, renewable energy, biomass energy is an intriguing solution to Georgia’s environmental and economic issues. Growth in the biomass industry benefits some of the most economically depressed areas in Georgia. 92% of Georgia’s forests are privately owned, primarily by families in rural areas6. Despite its limited use, biomass power is helping Georgia companies reach their renewable energy goals. The 50-MW Albany Green biomass energy plant was completed in the summer of 2017. One of the project sponsors, Proctor and Gamble, plans to obtain 100% of its steam needs for its largest U.S. facilities through this plant. Georgia’s biomass energy has helped Proctor and Gamble move towards its 2020 goal of using 100% renewable energy7. Some have cited the concerned that biomass use leads to heavy deforestation. This concern has been proven unwarranted as Georgia’s forest growth rates have more than offset tree loss. Despite an exponential growth in pellet production, Georgia’s Forestry Commission has reported that tree growth has exceeded tree removal in every region of the state. In fact, Georgia’s forest cover has increased by 137,000 acres since 19978. Encouraging biomass energy usage could economically benefit Georgia’s rural areas while increasing use of renewable energy.
Biomass has received backlash from environmental scientists across the globe. Many argue that the energy source is not nearly as environmentally sound as it has been marketed. Policy-makers and scientists have battled over whether biomass energy can be accurately labeled as carbon-neutral. Theoretically, the same amount of carbon released into atmosphere when trees are burned would be reabsorbed as the trees go back. This theory does not account for the 20-25% of emissions produced in the production of biomass pellets. Additionally, the carbon-neutrality of this energy source is dependent on how identically the forests are regrown. After logging, lands can be managed differently or put to new use. Insect infestations or droughts can make tree reestablishment difficult.
The real-world implementation of biomass energy
Biomass energy has faced backlash regarding the practicality of its large-scale implementation. Currently, biomass energy accounts for a mere 5% of the United States’ energy9. The U.S. Energy Information agency has estimated that for each 1% added to the United States’ electricity production, it would require an 18% increase in US forest harvest. The amount of deforestation required to significantly impact the United States’ energy consumption would be detrimental to the environment. From an economic perspective, the practicality of transitioning to biomass energy has faced similar skepticism. Dr. Bin Mei from the University of Georgia led a study exploring the economics of biomass transitioning in the United States. The study concluded that a national conversion to biomass energy is not economically feasible without a government subsidy. It would cost an estimated 8 billion to convert power plants to use biomass energy while exponentially increasing energy costs10.
A national transition to biomass energy could be a goldmine for rural areas in Georgia. An environmentally-friendly, home-grown energy source that economically benefits rural areas strikes a chord on both sides of the aisle. While the concept is intriguing in theory, some scientists and economists are less enthusiastic about its real-world implementation. In Georgia’s push for more sustainable energy, biomass energy holds significant potential but should be viewed with healthy skepticism.