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Bright future in natural gas, woodlands

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Moderated by Rick Badie

Today, an energy consultant suggests that cleaner, renewable energy might prove an economic boon for Georgia, a state with key factors in place to help it capitalize on a growing national movement to reduce pollution from power plants. The other writer looks at the valuable role our forests and woodlands can play in combating climate change.

Georgia’s promising energy future

By Win Porter

Georgia is on a path to more robust economic growth based on cleaner and more affordable energy. Natural gas and nuclear power will provide most of the muscle.

There are three key factors for this promising energy situation: the huge increase in clean and inexpensive natural gas due to “fracking” technology; Georgia’s ongoing expansion of nuclear power facilities; and President Barack Obama’s new climate plan, which will require Georgia to reduce its carbon emissions by 44 percent by 2030.

An abundance of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing in underground shale formations, extending largely from the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states to the Gulf Coast, has improved America’s energy future. In less than a decade, America has gone from scarcity to the world’s largest gas producer.The Southern Co., which owns Georgia Power, has been retiring aging coal plants and building new gas units. Natural gas has less than 50 percent of the carbon content of coal, so a switch to gas reduces Georgia’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal’s share of Georgia’s electricity generating capacity has dropped from 55 to 33 percent since 2009, while the use of gas has more than doubled, from 16 percent to more than 35 percent. That trend is likely to continue.

Georgia may even become an exporter of liquefied natural gas, since the LNG import plant in Savannah has applied for a federal permit to export such gas. These profitable exports may help Europe fight the gas monopoly that allows Russia to dominate much of the region.

Georgia also has the advantage of nuclear power. Its expansion is crucial, because it can deliver large amounts of power without sending any carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The biggest reduction in such emissions will come from two large nuclear power plants under construction at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro. The Vogtle additions alone will account for more than a third of Georgia’s required carbon reductions under the president’s climate plan.

The need to invest in natural gas, nuclear power and renewable energy sources is more obvious than ever. Solar and wind energy have been neglected in the state; now their use is being promoted. We need to face the future with all of our energy tools.

Even coal, possibly with carbon capture and storage technology, may have a role to play. The Southern Co. has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to build the Kemper County Plant in Mississippi, which will gasify coal before it is burned and capture its carbon emissions. This is the first large-scale technology for carbon mitigation in coal generation to be demonstrated in the United States. It is expensive, given the relative price of natural gas, but the process is promising. It could even be beneficial in reducing carbon emissions in fast-growing economies overseas that rely heavily on coal.

Georgia’s nuclear and gas programs will present an opportunity to ensure a cleaner environment and greater energy security.

Win Porter is an energy and environment consultant based in Savannah.

Forests critical to emissions reductions

By Ken Stewart

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently held public hearings in Atlanta on the agency’s proposal to curb power plant carbon dioxide emissions. This historic rule gives states guidelines to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030.

There is another climate solution we can put to work right now to soak up carbon in the atmosphere: forests. We can tap the power of forests — particularly privately owned woodlands — to capture carbon dioxide emissions and protect natural resources like drinking water and clean air, which are threatened by climate change.

Right now, forests soak up nearly 13 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. They also help reduce emissions by supplying renewable energy and wood products. Family owned woodlands store 14 billion tons of carbon in total, which equals the emissions of more than 13,000 coal-fired power plants in one year.Healthy forests also contribute to healthy communities, especially in rural areas. These renewable resources produce timber, pulpwood, chips and wood fuel. These, in turn, are used to make lumber for homes, paper products and furniture. Family forests also produce jobs and promote economic growth through recreation, tourism spending and hunting leases.

Georgia boasts 24 million acres of forestland, covering two-thirds of the state. Nearly all of it — 92 percent — is privately owned. According to a Georgia Tech report, the forest industry contributes nearly $29 billion to the state’s economy and provides vital ecosystem services, including clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.

When it comes to climate change, we can take steps to further increase carbon capture by keeping existing forests as forests — not converting them to strip malls or row crops — and improving active forest management, increasing the use of wood for construction and maintaining tax incentives that support working forests, among other measures. By investing in woodland stewardship, we can spur economic growth, create jobs and tame the climate crisis.

The EPA predicts that with strategic forest conservation and improved forest management practices, forests could store up to 20 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. To do this, we must equip family forest owners with the resources they need to better manage their woodlands and keep forests healthy for the long run. Drought, catastrophic fire, invasive species, hurricanes and other threats mean keeping our woods healthy is an active enterprise, not a passive one.

If you own woodlands, get the tools you need to keep your forest healthy; http://www.mylandplan.org is a great resource. Support woodland owners as they harvest trees to combat invasive species, create a healthier mix of trees or pay their bills. If you are a policymaker, reward woodland owners for the clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and other values they create.

As Georgia, other states and the federal government create a blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, let’s broaden the conversation to factor in family forests as a critical piece of the solution.

Ken Stewart, former director of the Georgia Forestry Commission, is board chair of the American Forest Foundation.

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