Wood waste is piled up at a power plant in New Hampshire. Credit: PSNH / Flickr / Creative Commons

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The vice-chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission says EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt understands the important role biomass plays in creating jobs in rural communities.

Tim Echols

If you have ever seen a field after a tree harvest, you know how messy it looks with forest residuals scattered everywhere. Either a bulldozer piles all the debris up and burns it in the field, or a chipping crew comes in, chips it, and takes it to a boiler at a paper mill or similar facility and makes electricity and steam. Cities like Burlington, Vermont have taken advantage of biomass resources in a big way. Pruitt’s recent policy change will allow others to do the same.

Using biomass to generate electricity is part of a plan created by our Georgia Public Service Commission and Georgia Power to keep a diversified renewable energy policy alive and well in Georgia. The energy value was tied to our avoided cost projections at the time of the “request for proposals.” Since then, the avoided cost and capacity costs have declined due to lower natural gas and solar prices and the amount of capacity available in our state and region.

All of that detail can be confusing — which brings me to Scott Pruitt’s visit. Since using biomass for a fuel source is now uneconomic compared to other choices, Scott Pruitt took action as head of the EPA to modify a definition. Pruitt said that going forward biomass from managed forests (pine plantations in Georgia’s case) will be treated as carbon neutral when used for energy production at stationary sources. He added that the EPA would be assessing options for incorporating non-forest biomass (think yard waste) as carbon neutral as well.

Though I hope it doesn’t happen, I believe that some future president or some future Congress will slap a penalty on plants that emit CO2. By declaring biomass carbon neutral, Administrator Pruitt returns the agency to its pre-2010 position and brings the United States in line with the European Union and California. After all, US Forests absorb CO2, and figures in 2015 suggest that over 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were “sunk” in our collective forests.

Andrew Saunders, Sustainability Manager at one of Georgia’s most influential counties, said that after harvest the limbs and tops can either be left in the field to rot, thereby producing CO2, or they can be burned for energy, thereby producing the same amount of CO2 and offsetting other CO2 emissions from fuel sources. Pruitt’s rule creates a future economic incentive to gather up those residuals and use them for steam and electricity. That economic incentive for forest management is an economic incentive for landowners to keep their land in trees and keep Georgia green.

Pruitt, his boss, Donald Trump, and our Commission know that biomass generation in Georgia and many other red states is sourced locally which helps the workforce in our rural communities. Operation and maintenance of the plants also provides much needed jobs. The generation is not intermittent like solar and wind and further diversifies the fuel mix in our generation portfolio which helps reduce price volatility.

Forestry in Georgia is the picture of sustainability with almost 25 million acres of trees planted, grown, harvested and replanted in our working forests. Utilizing Georgia biomass is smart for a number of reasons.

First, it offers a hedge against rising electric rates that might result from future escalation in natural gas, coal and uranium prices—all commodities that have historical price fluctuation. Even solar panels have experienced a price increase with the recent tariff imposed by the Administration. 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 and steam and it does not depend on the sun shining or the wind blowing. You can store those wood chips on site—unlike natural gas which is just in time. Finally, biomass preserves Georgia’s environment while supporting Georgia’s rural forests and farms through stronger markets for forest products.

The shining star of our biomass plants is in Dublin, GA. Green Power Solutions worked with West Rock in Dublin to build a 30MW project which local leaders say saved the jobs of 300 people. That plant uses the steam to make Starbucks cups out of recycled cardboard, and electricity goes right back onto the Georgia grid. To the west of I-75, the International Paper Company built a facility on the Flint River near Montezuma at their diaper fluff plant. With Pruitt’s rule change, maybe we will see more.

The Georgia energy landscape is changing. We are now 8th in the nation in solar with more coming. But with all the new solar power plants being constructed, the aforementioned biomass plants will be considered renewable energy—on par with wind and solar in its CO2 characteristics. This is 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 incentivizing Georgia’s private forestland owners to continue to manage well given strong markets for their timber.

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 keep electric rates low for all.

Tim Echols is vice-chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission. He was re-elected to another six-year term in November 2016.

3 replies on “Commentary: Why Pruitt’s biomass policy change matters”

  1. Sorry, Mr. Scott “Pruitt’s only tenuous claim to environmental protection concerns a sort of wetland preservation — namely, his immense contributions to the ethical swamp President Trump promised to drain.”
    (From another editorial)

  2. While Commissioner Echols may have some economic facts right (might I add, a broken clock is right twice a day)… I question the total knowledge and understanding of environmental complexities and complicated eco-dependence issues from a man who has SEVEN children. Someone who doesn’t realize that over-population is exacerbating ALL of our environmental threats (and many others, too) I believe lives in a world where he needs to “justify” rather than exemplify.

  3. Claudia, well stated point. Thank you. However, Pruitt and the PSC are moving in the right direction. As a reforestation contractor for over 30 years, including my own farm, I can see soil carbon benefits from the 30 year rest provided many former agricultural forest. Next step is to work on improving the soil microbes who do the real work of sinking the CO2 as they sink most of the carbon as the trees and other plants separate the carbon from the oxygen. One step is to apply treated sewage to forestland after harvest and jumpstart the next generation of soil microbes. Lower density forest also allow for grasses and forbs to establish and grow longer and this can actually lead to more $ per acre for the landowner by promoting larger diameter trees sooner. Legumes such as Partage Pea, and clovers, suck in another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide and microbes again detach the nitrogen so trees can build faster chains of cellulose and return the oxygen to the atmosphere. In short we need to reconsider how we define some pollutants.

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