Published: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 4:06 AM EDT By Robert M. Williams, Jr.
The news came in early 2010 that Southeast Georgia would be home to the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for fuel to power Europe’s energy generating plants.
That our job-hungry area would be a focus for the renewable energy movement brought a flurry of welcome publicity. Then-Governor Sonny Perdue came for the groundbreaking of the $175 million Georgia Biomass plant later that year and, by mid-2011, the first of hundreds of truckloads of pine timber began rolling through the gates each week. Employing more than 80 people and indirectly creating hundreds more jobs, the Georgia Biomass plant has been a natural fit. This new industry needed our abundance of pine trees as a raw material, rail lines to ship the fuel pellets out and a nearby port at Savannah to send them on their way to Europe where the United Kingdom is leading the way on promoting the use of renewable energy sources.
The operation has not been without one or two hiccups. A wood dust explosion a year ago shut down production temporarily but, fortunately, injured no one. Today, Plant Manager Brad Mayhew is proud to say Georgia Biomass has not had a single lost-time injury on the job since opening over two years ago. The firm felt another kind of blow a few months ago, however, when RWE, one of Europe’s five leading electric and gas companies, and the owner of Georgia Biomass, announced they would not continue their focus on utilizing wood pellet technology, leading to fears the plant could be sold, or worse, shut down. Doomsayers around the area were quickly saying: “We knew it was too good to be true.”
Georgia Biomass officials hosted a sit-down this week, to set the record straight for area political leaders and the press.
With demand far outstripping supply and Georgia Biomass’ entire production capability already sold through mid-2015, don’t expect this plant to go anywhere anytime soon.
“Last year, Georgia exported about a million tons of wood pellets,” said Georgia Biomass CEO James Roecker. “We did about 60% of that. By 2020, the Southeast will be shipping 6-7 million tons of pellets.”
In other words, there’s still lots of money to be made turning our tall pine trees into tiny pellets and Georgia Biomass plans to lead the way.
“This company is not currently up for sale by RWE, but we’ve had about 20 companies make inquiries if they ever do,” added Roecker.
All of this is good news for area businesses. Forest products have been a mainstay of this region’s economy for more than a century and Georgia Biomass has only further emphasized the impact of timber on so many of us.
Think about this. Last year Georgia Biomass purchased 54,000 truckloads of pine timber. Those trees came from within a 75-mile radius and put more than $40 million into the pockets of landowners, timber dealers, etc. The multiplier effect of gas purchases, trucks, tires and more means the impact of this plant represents hundreds of millions of dollars to this region.
The staggering number of trees consumed by this one plant often leads to the inevitable question: “How long can we continue to provide pine trees to meet this demand?”
The answer: As long as needed.
“Georgia is growing 20 million tons of trees more than are being harvested every year,” explains Georgia Biomass procurement forester Barry Parrish. “We’re only tapping 20 percent of the excess growth. There’s five million extra tons being grown just within our 75-mile radius.”
Eighty-five employees at GB are drawing paychecks. Hundreds, probably thousands, more are impacted by this new industry.
The sweet scent of pine chips lingers in the air around the Georgia Biomass plant.
And it smells like money.