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Georgia's more than 24 million acres of forest produce a bumper crop of branches and other woody scraps. Now, timber industry players want those leftovers to power air conditioning and lights for more of Georgia Power's 2.6 million customers.

And they're pressing state regulators to make it so.

This week, timber industry representatives asked the state Public Service Commission to ensure biomass - organic matter that can be turned into fuel - gets broader use by Georgia Power. The company's proposed update to long-range energy plans calls for more renewables, but don't specify biomass.

"We've got mountains and mountains of biomass," said Clay Crosby, the chief executive of Twin Rivers Land and Timber in Perry, Ga.

But just because it's readily available doesn't mean it's the best option, some say.

Even forestry proponents acknowledge that biomass isn't the most affordable energy for consumers. Environmental groups wrestle with how clean the technology is, despite the Trump administration declaring it carbon neutral. And past Georgia biomass projects have struggled to come online.

Still, Georgia has lots of the wood debris that biomass might need. Some is the result of storms, such as Hurricane Michael, which last year ravaged a million acres of timberland. And even without storms, limbs and leftover wood build up from activities like roadside pruning, logging operations and forest fire prevention efforts.

While constructing several small power plants around the state to burn wood waste would produce a modest amount of energy, it could provide at least some help for the timber industry and land owners, Crosby told members of the PSC in a hearing Monday. He described it as "a small glass of water when you are really thirsty."

The investment wouldn't increase Georgia Power's customer bills, said Andres Villegas, the chief executive of the Georgia Forestry Association. It would, though, provide an economic boost to rural areas and create another use for forest debris, he said. "From a rural communities perspective, this is important."

Georgia already ranks as the nation's largest exporter of wood pellets. They primarily end up in Europe, where governments back their use in biomass power plants.

In the U.S., the economics are more challenging.

Coal dominated Georgia's energy picture more than a decade ago, but has been sharply curtailed with growing environmental concerns and, crucially, less competitive prices. Natural gas is booming and solar energy is on the rise, after prices for both fell.

Advocates are pushing for more solar expansion and sharper cuts in coal plants than what Georgia Power has proposed. And they have lobbied to increase energy efficiency efforts.

Georgia Power has put the vast majority of its recent spending on energy generation into its deeply over-budget nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle, south of Augusta. And the company has pumped up spending on solar power throughout the state.

A company spokesman wrote in an email that Georgia Power's programs "allow for biomass to compete with other renewable resources."

"We select the options that bring the most long-term value for our customers," he said.

Georgia Power doesn't own any forest biomass plants in the state, but it has contracts to buy biomass electricity. One of those contracts is with a 2-year-old Albany facility that also provides power to Procter & Gamble paper towel and toilet paper plant. The utility also has agreements to buy power from other proposed biomass plants in the state.

But after years of analysis, Georgia Power dropped plans several years ago to convert an aging south Georgia coal plant to biomass. Cost projections had soared as other energy prices fell.

Other biomass projects by third parties also have struggled. After being granted access to at least $162 million in federal and state help, a wood-to-ethanol plant in south Georgia closed before producing any fuel.

Following 16 years of efforts, new biomass plants are nearing completion in Franklin and Madison counties, with each expected to have fewer than 30 employees. Still they will provide the highest-dollar economic development investments ever for those northeast Georgia communities, according to state Sen. Frank Ginn.

Georgia PSC members have shown varying interest in more biomass energy.

"It is very much a priority for us," Chairman Lauren "Bubba" McDonald said.

Commissioner Tricia Pridemore said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the key is keeping costs low for ratepayers.

Colleague Tim Echols emailed that "cheap natural gas and solar has made it difficult for biomass to compete strictly on price."

But, he wrote, it still "makes sense to include a small amount of biomass energy in our grid plan. After all, forest residuals, salvage timber from the storm, and urban yard waste is plentiful in our state."

Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com

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