Energy expert touts state's alternative fuel options

Jill Stuckey says that foreign companies are investing billions into U.S. companies who are producing alternative fuels.

Jill Stuckey, the head of Georgia's Center of Innovation for Energy, gives a presentation to the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission Wednesday.

Jill Stuckey, the head of Georgia's Center of Innovation for Energy, gives a presentation to the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission Wednesday.

— ALBANY — The head of the state’s Innovation Center for Energy says Georgia was in a prime position to benefit from a growing alternative fuel movement, but cautions that many of the budding initiatives are risky.

Jill Stuckey, the director for Georgia’s Innovation Center for Energy, told the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission on Wednesday that because of its vast timber and agricultural byproducts, Georgia has become more and more appealing to European-based companies seeking biomass as a source of energy.

That’s the case with RWE, one of European Union’s largest energy producers. RWE has built a massive $200 million pellet facility in Waycross to feed a growing demand for that source of fuel in Europe and Asia.

“I think we can replicate that facility around Georgia, specifically in this area,” Stuckey said. “And I think that’s going to happen in the near future. We’re working with dozens of companies that are looking at putting pellet manufacturing operations around the state.”

Currently, Georgia is the top state in the nation in terms of the number of alternative fuel projects that are being organized, undertaken and supported, Stuckey said.

Those range from the creation of ethanol plants to the development of drop-in chemical additives to help existing oil-based fuels burn cleaner and more efficiently.

And while the concept of some of these energy alternatives may seem new to many, it’s far from a brand new concept for many in the utility business.

Southern Company, the parent of Georgia Power, is currently in the process of re-purposing Plant Mitchell from a coal-burning plant to one that burns biomass such as pine trees and cellulose agricultural waste.

And while the state has used tax dollars to serve as an incentive to get some of these companies off the ground, it’s positioned itself mostly as a matchmaker between the companies and the resources they may need, such as the feedstock providers or the financing officials, especially in the wake of the collapse of Range Fuels in Soperton.

Range Fuels received more than $6 million in state government funding to assist with getting their cellulose-based ethanol plant of the ground. Additionally, the company defaulted on more than $156 million in loans backed by the federal government.

“You never want to start a company that is based on government funds because you don’t know when those funds are going to go away, so what you have to have is a business plan that can be profitable without government funds,” Stuckey said. “... Anything new is risky, and taking our natural resources and producing energy or taking our farm products and forest products and making energy is somewhat new in the way we’re doing it now.”

Success in the alternatie fuel game can be a tricky proposition.

Many state officials still contend that the tax dollars spent on the purchase of equipment at the plant hasn’t been wasted, since the plant was bought by another company and the equipment is still there and will likely help that new company create jobs and produce fuel, despite Range’s corporate flop.

In Mitchell County, where First United Ethanol has emerged from bankruptcy, Stuckey says that the situation there is far from gloomy as the company never stopped production and is even exporting thousands if not millions of gallons of ethanol to countries like Brazil, even if they are struggling to be profitable.

With fast-growing economies like those of China and India expected to see their energy demands skyrocket in the next decade, Stuckey says Georgia is poised to be able to answer the call if we play our cards right.

Pointing to Iowa where, in 2002, the state began an aggressive subsidy-based approach to converted the state’s agricultural gold mine — corn — into biofuel. By 2008, the companies were thriving, increasing that state’s total GDP by 9 percent and, to some more importantly, were operating without any tax dollars from the Iowa government.

“In the energy game, you’re going to have winners and losers,” Stuckey said. “With our agricultural heritage and our access to timber, I think Georgia will end up a winner.”