Biomass energy push gains traction despite some objections

    Trees downed in Seminole County by Hurricane Michael. Georgia National Guard photo by Brig. Gen. Randall Simmons. Creative Commons

    This story was updated Thursday at 2:40 p.m. with a comment from Georgia Power regarding the bidding process.

    Georgia Power is pressing forward with long-term plans to expand its capacity to convert trees and other organic material into biomass energy despite objections from some environmentalists. 

    The Public Service Commission agreed Tuesday to let the state’s largest electric utility accept bids from companies for a new 50-megawatt biomass plant. 

    Georgia Power is also working towards agreements to purchase more energy through other sources, such as steam turbine plants, battery energy storage systems and solar power.

    The amount of energy the utility could need depends partly on how many power plants commissioners decide Georgia Power can shut down within the next couple of years, said Rob Trokey, the commission’s electric unit director. The utility has been gradually retiring its coal-fired power plants. 

    In the meantime, the utility will weigh its options for adding thousands of megawatts of energy to meet the state’s energy needs through 2028.

    Proposals will be accepted this fall but it could be a couple years from now before a new biomass plant generates its first megawatt.

    “This process has occurred in other states, looking at all sources as alternatives to existing resources,” Trokey said. “It’s been determined that customers can save potentially hundreds of millions of dollars by retiring some of these (power plants).”

    The 50 megawatts of biomass plant would represent just a fraction of Georgia Power’s total energy portfolio. But the public service commissioner advocating for it, Republican Jason Shaw, says it would create jobs and help the forestry industry, which has been ravaged by storms like Hurricane Michael. 

    The commission and Georgia Power will still have to give the final OK before the biomass plant is built. 

    “The sooner we can get these resources online then that is investment taking place in our state and in our rural communities,” Shaw said at Tuesday’s PSC meeting.

    The Sierra Club, though, argues that converting biomass into energy doesn’t make economic sense. Instead, environmentalists say the focus should be on closing Georgia Power’s three remaining coal plants and moving more quickly on renewable energy.

    “The economics don’t pencil out at all, and it’s just a nice gift to the timber industry to suggest that burning trees will help keep the lights on,” said Stephen Stetson with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. 

    “When the price of solar and energy storage keep falling, the best thing to do for Georgia utility customers would be to invest in ideas that are proven money-savers,” he said.

    Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told commissioners he’s concerned that some energy producers could be boxed out of the bidding process because they do not meet minimum guidelines for energy production. 

    “The result of the (proposals) will influence decisions about plant retirement and the Georgia Power portfolio, not just between now and 2028 but really for the next 30 years,” Jacob said. “So, I think ratepayers are expecting the collective us, but specifically commissioners, to get it right now.”

    Georgia Power attorney Judith Fuller said it would be “inefficient and burdensome” to rely on small increments of biomass or any other energy source to replace coal plants.

    And Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said Thursday that the company supports letting smaller companies bid on producing biomass energy for the 50 megawatt facility.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.