Taking part in an Earth Day panel at Georgia Southern University, U.S. Rep. John Barrow voiced support for federal funding and coordination of research and development for new energy sources, but opposition to policies that make “dirty energy” more expensive.
Barrow, D-Ga., was one of five speakers Monday evening for the Earth Day Energy Panel. Other panelists represented the Clean Air Campaign and segments of the energy industry, including electricity, natural gas and biomass. About 50 people attended the program hosted by the GSU Center for Sustainability.
Center director Lissa Leege, as moderator, asked Barrow to outline his position on current and potential energy production in the Southeast. She also asked panelists to discuss barriers to increased use of clean energy and prospects for a coordinated national energy policy.
One barrier is a difference of opinion between leaders who think market forces should drive any changes and those who call for a more coordinated approach, Barrow said. Among those who see an active role for government, the conventional wisdom is to “raise the cost of business as usual” with special taxes or cap-and-trade policies for “dirty” energy sources, he said. Barrow rejects this approach.
“If you increase the cost of dirty, you will definitely increase the demand for something that’s clean, but you won’t increase the supply of something that’s clean … and you certainly won’t create an infrastructure to deliver that energy,” he said.
A tax on carbon emissions was approved by the House but not the Senate in 1993 and never became law. Similarly, cap-and-trade legislation, with caps on emissions diminishing over time and polluters allowed to buy permitted capacity from cleaner energy users, passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate.
‘A coordinated plan’
In contrast to last week’s GSU No Impact Week speaker, former White House green jobs adviser Van Jones, who advocated cap-and-trade, Barrow voted against the 2009 bill.
However, the congressman advocates a role for government in developing a national energy policy and funding research and development.
“A genuinely coordinated energy policy would be like an Apollo project, if you please, where we actually create a coordinated plan of research and development,” Barrow said. “That’s how we got to the moon.”
Clean Air Campaign
Panelist Brian Carr, the communications director for the Clean Air Campaign, said its focus is on changing personal behaviors in favor of reduced energy use. Founded in Atlanta in 1996, the campaign works with employers, property managers and schools across the state on “scalable change, where small actions can add up” such as giving commuters alternatives to driving alone, he said.
About half of all smog-forming emissions in Georgia come from cars, and the state’s population growth has led the Southeast in recent years. Bulloch County alone, Carr noted, is forecast to add 40,000 to 50,000 people in the next 30 years.
“With that obviously comes more demand for energy, so diversification becomes a really important issue in the overall context of how the state moves forward and how the region moves forward, but it really draws back to those individual actions that people can make,” he said.
Carr said progress has been made, which he attributed mainly tighter regulatory controls and advances in technology. But he added that programs that promote voluntary changes, such as Energy Star labels on higher efficiency appliances, have helped.
“In general, air quality has improved in the state of Georgia by leaps and bounds the past several decades,” he said.
Other panelists reflected some of the state’s diversity of energy sources.
Harold Arnold is the president of Fram Renewable Fuels, which makes wood pellets for use as fuel. Opened in 2005, Fram is headquartered in Richmond Hill. It has facilities at Baxley and Lumber City and recently broke ground for another mill at Hazlehurst. The pellets are used in power plants and other facilities that otherwise burn coal. Much of U.S. pellet production is currently exported to Europe.
Rodney Dill, regional member services director for the Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, noted that demand is growing for natural gas for electricity production. Hydraulic fracturing – many people call it fracking, but he didn’t – has freed previously trapped deposits, increasing the available supply and lowering costs.
Proven U.S. natural gas reserves amount to a more than 100-year supply at current consumption, Dill said. He also talked about interest in natural gas as fuel for motor vehicles.
Another panelist, Ronnie Just, Georgia Power’s governmental affairs coordinator, said the company now uses coal for “well below 50 percent” of its electricity production. Barrow referred to a shift from coal being used for two-thirds of electric generation nationally to about one-third. Natural gas does not carry mercury, a pollutant found in Georgia’s streams that has been attributed to burning coal, and burns more efficiently, various speakers said.
At Leege’s request, Dill also discussed landfills, which produce methane from decaying waste, as a source of natural gas.
In fact, landfill gas is one of the sources in the Green Energy option Georgia Power now offers. Residential customers who choose it pay $3.50 per 100 kilowatt hours each month to have electricity generated with landfill gas added to the power grid in 100 kilowatt-hour blocks, or $5.00 per block if they want at least half to come from solar panels and the rest from landfill gas.
Also on Earth Day, Georgia Power announced a contract to purchase 250 megawatts of power produced by wind turbines in Oklahoma. This is roughly the amount of electricity used by 250 Walmart supercenters like the one in Statesboro, Just said. EPD Renewables is scheduled to deliver the wind power beginning Jan. 1, 2016.
GSU students Christina Belge and Anni Raino, from the Student Alliance for a Green Earth, announced that students will begin paying the university’s new $10 per semester Green Fee this fall. Approved April 16 by the state Board of Regents, the fee will fund campus sustainability projects, staffing for the center, promotional materials and potential expansion of Georgia Southern’s environmental sustainability education program, they said.