Trees could be the new power source for facilities throughout the Palmetto State.
As companies look to cut down on carbon emissions, the use of wood waste as a power generation source is a budding industry in South Carolina. The use of woody biomass is emerging, not booming, in the state, according to industry leaders.
Experts see the industry taking shape in two ways: more wood pellet manufacturers could open facilities in the state to produce pellets and either sell or export them, or more woody biomass facilities could move into the state to buy pellets, convert them into electricity and sell them to S.C. utility providers.
Two wood pellet companies are currently either expanding or building plants in South Carolina to produce a cumulative 700,000 tons of pellets annually.
As for woody biomass facilities, one company is already in operations supplying power to a utility provider here, and another company is in the process of building two more of these facilities.
Wood waste is a good source for power and heat, which can be used to power homes or facilities, said Terry Walker, a Clemson University biosystems engineering professor.
Wood waste is just one element of biomass. Numerous companies throughout the state use biomass sources currently by converting yard waste, food products or animal products into fuel or power, for example.
“All biomass is better than coal. Coal is by far the worst of the fossil fuels with oil coming to a close second to worse,” Walker said. “We are truly in a crisis and a solution needs to be implemented by 2020 if we want our children and their children to have a good life.”
Pellet production possibilities
Southeast wood pellet export volumes are forecast to reach 5.7 million tons by 2015, up from 1.5 tons produced in 2012, according to the North American Wood Fiber Review, a publication of Wood Resources International.
South Carolina’s pellet industry is currently propelled by two facilities.
Lowcountry Biomass invested $16 million to expanding its existing wood pellet plant in Jasper County to produce up to 200,000 pellets annually.
Atlanta-based Enova Energy Group is completing construction of a wood pellet plant in Edgefield County with a capacity of up to 500,000 tons of wood pellets by 2014, which will be exported to Europe through the Port of Savannah.
Many U.S. wood pellet manufacturers sell their wood pellets to power European facilities, where the use of woody biomass has taken off much more than in the Southeast, said Tim Adams, the S.C. Forestry Commission business development director.
“We’re a bit behind neighboring states because most of the wood pellets are currently being shipped to Europe and we would have to use the Port of Savannah since it has the large, covered storage areas and conveyor belts needed to store and load the pellets onto ships,” Adams said.
Adams works to supply information to wood pellet companies looking to locate a plant in South Carolina. While the commission is not actively recruiting the companies, it will gather and analyze data to help them make a decision on whether to locate here.
Roughly 13.1 million acres of South Carolina is covered in forest, or roughly two-thirds of the state, which could be used as raw materials for wood pellets. The wood fiber material is dried and pressed through a die to produce pellets roughly 8 millimeters long.
“I think this industry will grow eventually in the state to have more wood pellet manufacturers locate here to export the pellets or keep them in state, but it hasn’t taken off yet,” Adams said. “There’s some concern that we won’t have enough small diameter pines to meet the needs of pellet companies coming into the state.”
Woody biomass potential
Woody biomass facilities purchase the wood chips and use internal processes to convert it to power, which those companies then sell to utility providers.
Santee Cooper has agreements to receive renewable power from three woody biomass facilities operated by two different companies, one of which has been providing electricity to the Iva-based utility provider since 2010.
Santee Cooper receives 38 megawatts of electricity from Domtar Paper’s Bennettsville pulp and paper mill. The plant added a generator to its existing process to utilize steam from wood waste to generate electricity.
EDF Renewable Energy, which purchased Southeast Renewable Energy’s South Carolina projects, is building two, 18-megawatt plants that will use woody biomass to produce electricity for Santee Cooper.
These plants are under construction in Allendale and Dorchester counties. They are expected to come on line sometime early next year, said Santee Cooper Public Relations Director Mollie Gore. EDF could not be reached for comment.
Santee Cooper’s capacity is close to 6,000 megawatts of electricity, and once two more woody biomass plants come on line, the utility provider will receive roughly 80 megawatts from woody biomass.
In 2012, about 58% of electricity sales were from coal generation, 30% from gas and the remaining from renewables, including woody biomass.
“It’s a new business industry here in South Carolina. There aren’t a lot of these plants in South Carolina, so it’s hard to gauge how much electricity can be produced,” Gore said. “It’s a small portion of our electricity, but it has seen steady growth.”