he seemingly ubiquitous southern yellow pine is creating quite a stir in Ware County these days as the U.S. subsidiary of a major German energy company readies to turn the plentiful feedstock into wood pellets to help fire its power plants in Europe.
Georgia Biomass, subsidiary of RWE Innogy, is a US$150-million project to develop the world's largest wood pellet plant, which is on schedule to begin production during the second quarter of 2011. The operation plans to employ 80 at the 300-acre (121-hectare) site near Waycross in southeast Georgia, and five more at its head office in Savannah. Georgia Biomass will transport the pellets by rail over the approximately 100 miles (161 km.) to Savannah where they will then be shipped to Europe.
The plant, which will operate 24-7 for about 50 weeks per year, will produce 750,000 metric tons of pellets annually. The Okefenokee Area Development Authority provided the land for the project through a lease agreement.
RWE Innogy is the renewable energy arm of Germany-based RWE Group. In addition to biomass, it is involved in wind and hydro energy projects. Georgia Biomass is an effort by RWE Group, Europe's third largest supplier of electricity, to meet the EU's requirements of 20 percent of electricity generation from renewable sources and reduction of emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990 by 2020. All of the production from Georgia Biomass will be exported to Europe to be used to co-fire RWE's electricity-generating plants, reducing coal consumption.
Thomas Wiedenhoefer, chief technology officer for Georgia Biomass, says the pellets are considered carbon-neutral. "Reduction of carbon footprint is the name of the game in Europe, and one of the puzzle pieces is biomass," he says.
RWE Innogy and its partner BioMass Capital Management of Sweden did a global search for the best place to site the biomass plant, and determined the southeastern U.S. to be the logical choice.
"The growth rate of the pine in the U.S. is extraordinary due to long vegetation periods, high temperatures and rainwater," says Wiedenhoefer. "Trees grow twice as fast as in northern Europe."
Wiedenhoefer says Waycross was chosen because of the pine tree growth rate in the region with sustainably managed forestry, an available trained work force and the strong rail and port infrastructure. Sites in South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi were also considered. He says a location near a source of southern pine logs is essential to reduce logistics costs.
Georgia Biomass will source its raw materials from southern Georgia and northern Florida within about 75 miles (121 km.) of the new plant. The company will be buying pulpwood [12- to 18-year-old trees] to produce wood pellets. Wiedenhoefer says Georgia Biomass will be using the feedstock once destined for the International Paper mill in Waycross, which closed several years ago.
"According to our investigation, there is a surplus of fiber, and the growth of fiber here is exceeding consumption," Wiedenhoefer says. "We have to avoid getting into conflict with environmental issues. We want a clean and green fuel at the end. Forestry in this region has been working 40 to 50 years to achieve sustainable standards."
The project has already had a large economic impact on the Waycross area. About 400 people are working on the site as construction nears completion.
The operation includes a wood yard where logs will be delivered and stored. From there, logs will be run through a de-barking unit and then a chipper. Wood chips are stored and then taken to a dryer to reduce the moisture in the wood. The dryer is fueled with the bark. The dried chips are then run through hammer mills and are subsequently pelletized, in a process similar to the manufacturing of pet food.
The pellets, which are less than an inch long, are then loaded onto railcars for shipment to the Port of Savannah. Georgia Biomass has two large storage domes at the port to hold the pellets until they are ready to be shipped to Europe.
"It's really a local business," Wiedenhoefer says. "It's amazing to see what is going on in Waycross. At the moment it is difficult to find a hotel room and the restaurants are always crowded."
The operation also will have a huge impact on indirect employment, with loggers and haulers finding work as a result. Georgia Biomass will be receiving 250 truckloads of logs every day.
"You can imagine how many drivers and how many loggers are required," Wiedenhoefer says.
Georgia Biomass continues a long trend of German investment in the U.S. A recent study by the German American Chambers of Commerce notes that total investment by German business in the U.S. reached $218 billion by year-end 2009, with German firms employing 188,000 U.S. manufacturing workers.
The study also found that 63 percent expect positive growth for the U.S. economy in 2011, and 68 percent do not deem further stimulus measures necessary to sustain the current recovery.
GE Energy, which already had a sizeable presence in the Atlanta area, opened its Smart Grid Technology Center of Excellence in Marietta in July. The company is off to a quick start toward its announced goal of 400 employees, with 334 hired by mid-December.
"We went through a detailed analysis with different locations to understand where we can pull for our resources, and looked at geography to understand where we can attract talent in this business going forward with a location close to our customers," says Mark Hura, GE's smart grid commercial leader. "With Atlanta being our global headquarters, we can leverage our assets, and we also have a good relationship with Georgia Tech. The area is attractive to energy companies, so that made it an ideal choice for us."
GE Energy has formed a partnership with Georgia Tech to develop its work force as well as to conduct R&D related to smart grid technology. The company says the Center of Excellence will be responsible for developing smart grid technology for global markets around the world, and will manage the research and development of new technology for power plant automation, monitoring electrical grids and full integration of an "energy Internet." The solutions developed at the center will build in efficiencies to optimize the resources of power plants, conserve natural resources and ultimately reduce electricity rates.