Eclectic Energy Experts Paint Bright Green Future for Georgia's Sustainable Resources
Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
A diverse panel of experts from solar, electric vehicle, natural gas and biomass industries, among others, participating in the 3rd annual roundtable meeting to discuss Georgia’s future energy needs, suggested a bright picture ahead in renewable resources for the state.
Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols emceed the April 12th “Brunch and Learn” session, hosted by Attorney Greg Chafee, Partner for the Energy Group of the Thompson Hine law firm.
Leading off was Rex Hamre, Sustainability Director, Southeast, from real estate advisory firm JLL, the project manager company for the Atlanta Braves’ new SunTrust Stadium and mixed used development set to open in April 2017.
In providing “one of the safest and most environmentally friendly venues of its kind,” Hamre noted that the Braves established a set of goals around sustainability and energy efficiency both during construction and over the long term. Two key goals are to make the new ballpark 20% more energy efficient that Turner Field and industry baselines; and, to achieve 35% better usage of water versus comparable ballparks. One example of water sustainability will include the recycling of 50% or more of all of the water utilized for cleaning the stadium. Another consists of “a completely separate system that’s capturing the water that’s irrigated, drains through the field itself, is captured, filtered and then can be immediately reused for irrigation again. So we have a kind of a closed-loop system.” The new ballpark is LEED-certified and the Braves will also take advantage of Major League Baseball’s best practices from venues of other teams.
Bryan Batson, President, Atlanta Gas Light, which is merging with Georgia Power, informed attendees that the merger approval is in process by the various states involved and should be officially completed within a year or so. He stated that the natural gas supply in this country is plentiful thanks to fracking, which has also led to lower prices for customers, both commercial and residential.
In fact, Batson said, “The U.S. has over a hundred year supply of natural gas,” even with demand rising. With prices being so low, exploration for gas is not necessary or economically advantageous. “Today we know where it is and we decide how to produce it. You don’t call it exploration anymore. They call it production because they can look at a site and can tell you what’s there, tell you how much will come out and for how long it will come. So that’s a game-changer in America.”
From a Georgia perspective he noted that the state has been proactive over the years, and mentioned that the state is ready: supply is good; rates are low. Atlanta Gas Light has been rebuilding its steel and cast iron pipe infrastructure since 1998 and has replaced all steel, cast iron and vintage plastic from its pipelines.
Despite the fact that the Georgia tax incentive for electric car owners has been reduced to zero, and in view of the importance of educating both car dealers and the public about the benefits, the future for battery-run vehicles looks bright and shiny, according to Michael Beinenson, President of EV South.
Georgia was the leading state for electric car ownership, but the tax abatement cost taxpayers $34 million, and once the credit went to zero, sales have slowed. On the other hand, Beinenson estimates that the savings in disposable income from those owners could range between $73-80 million. Therefore, this year’s approval of a study may influence the legislature’s next session to reinstate some amount of tax credit once again.
Beinenson also noted that Tesla has already received reservations for 325,000 of its new $35,000 version—Model 3—and it appears that the company is making an impact on similarly priced competitive vehicles, whose volumes appear to be decreasing somewhat versus last year’s sales. As further evidence of the growth of electric cars, he counted 44 different models at the recent New York International Car Show that have a plug for battery charging.
HOME ENERGY IMPROVEMENT
Geoff Belkin, CEO of Retrofit America, spoke of the home energy improvement market where his firm has conducted hundreds of energy audits and retrofits. Statistics show that those customers on the average saved 40% on heating and cooling bills, the type of energy that is responsible for 22% of total energy usage in the United States and 20% of CO2 emissions. However, it does take six to ten years for payback, plus consumers have limited awareness of the potential of an audit and improvements, not to mention that the savings are not currently reflected in home values of those retrofits.
That said, working with the Appraisal Institute in Washington, D.C., which has 500 experts trained to run energy efficiency vis-à-vis home value analyses, Belkin envisions implementing comparative data to validate the impact on home transactions. This type of information about home efficiency tracking would be then made available for Multiple Listing Service to better translate the value of energy efficient homes versus those of status quo.
Ross Harding, Managing Partner, Energy Launch Partners, business consultants, addressed the impact of biomass fuel (organic plant based material) on Georgia. On the one hand, the state has several players with a vested interest, such as landowners, tree farmers, saw mills, pulp and paper mills, all of which provide wood that can be made into pellets as biomass for fuel. However, no physical energy plants of 50 megawatts or 100 megawatts use this resource because of other less expensive options. The good news is that the logistics of shipping renewable, low-carbon fuel wood pellets to Europe and around the world are economically feasible.
In conclusion, Harding said, “I think here, continuing to make sure we stay well informed of how Europeans use energy so efficiently, perhaps find ways to have educational programs here, test facilities here where we can show, as energy prices move, when those fuels are ready and chosen, that we can deploy them cost-effectively for the citizens.”
David Malkin, Director, Communications and Policy, for Drax Biomass, further delineated the many other advantages of wood pellets: widely available; renewable; available supply chain; easy to transport; can be used at coal-fuel facilities; affordable; and low moisture content for higher BTU value, among others. The need for decarbonization, reliable supply and EPA openness to biomass account for favorable tailwinds for the industry, said Malkin. Among the few drawbacks are the low competitive cost of natural gas and coal and the fact that co-firing new plants is unproven. Also, the EPA has provided little in the way of guidelines for biomass fuels.
The solar power industry, according to Pete Marte, President and CEO of Hannah Solar, has been “sobering” this year, having to compete with wind from Oklahoma, biomass and natural gas. However, his firm has installed major commercial projects recently in Mississippi, as well as in South Carolina and North Carolina so that companies can “reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate their energy costs. That’s when we can kind of step back and see that we have a bright future as an industry.”
Their Georgia market has definitely slowed down except for a major project, “Solarize Tybee”, which involves 70 homes to date. Marte sees even greater potential with the electric vehicle market and in storage energy for utilities and companies, as well as for residential storage used for car charging.
GEORGIA CLEAN ENERGY ECONOMY
Environmental advocate and visionary leader, Attorney John Sibley, Senior Policy Fellow at Southface Energy Institute, summed up the progress of clean energy economy in Georgia, by noting, “We are over nineteen thousand full time equivalent jobs in the clean energy sector in Georgia right now, producing $3.3 billion in gross revenues.”