The Southeast has the land, water and climate to grow vast amounts of biomass for use in energy production, but developing a viable industry for crops like miscantha and switchgrass has been a slow-go.

Speaking at the recent South Carolina BioEnergy Summit, Bob Long, general manager of resource planning for SCANA (not an acronym), the state’s largest energy supplier, says utilities are looking for alternatives to coal.

If biomass from farmers was readily available at less cost, utilities would buy it, he says.

The problem with that scenario, Long says, is that farmers need long-term contracts to grow crops for conversion to energy. So far, utilities in South Carolina haven’t been willing to invest in such long-term commitments.

John Clark, who heads Palmetto Clean Solutions, says utilities are not so interested in alternative energy because they have been using fossil fuel for a long time. They know how to buy it, use it and get it to the customer. And, make a profit.

With biomass conversion, that whole process is new and not one South Carolina utilities have been quick to adapt.

SCANA, for example, was recently listed in a Newsweek Magazine survey as the 12th least environmentally friendly company in the U.S.

Neighboring states, like North Carolina, have in place a renewable fuel portfolio standard, but South Carolina doesn’t. Critics say having a mandatory plan in place to develop renewable energy will increase current energy rates.

“This simply isn’t true,” Clark says. He contends 28 states in the U.S. have lower utility rates than South Carolina and 18 of those states have renewable fuel portfolio standards in place.

“In South Carolina, utilities get what they want. They compete for business, but they stick together in lobbying and public relations efforts. The goal is to get utilities to want to move toward renewable energy sources in a big way, because meaningful legislation is not going to pass without support from utilities in South Carolina,” Clark says.

Right now the overwhelming interest is in producing energy for the lowest amount of money per kilowatt hour. Without a long-term renewable plan in place, coal is going to come out on top for a long, long time, Clark adds.

Even in competition with other fossil fuels, it appears coal will be an ongoing obstacle to developing long-term alternative energy sources, like biomass.

In November, the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that by 2035, coal will bypass oil as the primary source of energy worldwide. In 2010 the gap narrowed to 33 percent for oil and 27 percent for coal. By 2035, the agency contends demand will be 30-27 in favor of coal.

Clark says environmental groups have been successful to some extent in other Southeastern states, but South Carolina has not been supportive of biomass. Not all the lack of progress in developing biomass can be attributed to politics, he adds.

“State grant money is either no longer available or is highly competitive and restrictive. Federal dollars are likewise restricted and projects dealing with energy efficiency tend to get more federal funding than biomass research and development,” Clark says.